PUMPING IRONY: The Kids Are Alright?

Some evidence suggests that young people are carrying the virus into their multigenerational households, triggering the pandemic’s recent surge. Does that mean we should cancel visits from our grandson?

A child takes a ride on his grandfather's back out in the country.

Our nest here emptied out for good about eight years ago, which has given me plenty of time to observe its myriad benefits and liabilities. On the downside, I miss seeing our two offspring on a regular basis; celebrating their small triumphs and consoling them through their ordinary sorrows added some meaning to my days. What I don’t miss is navigating amid the flotsam of young-adult life — nagging them about the stacks of dirty dishes and mounds of soiled laundry they reliably generated and predictably ignored.

But these are small concerns in a time of pandemic. Some evidence now suggests that I should really be grateful that our kids aren’t bringing the virus home to us.

In the months since most states began reopening public-gathering places, we’ve seen a predictable surge in COVID-19 infections, and public-health officials are pointing at young adults as a primary culprit. Some 64 million Americans now live in multigenerational households, leaving vulnerable seniors at risk of infection when their asymptomatic progeny return from workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other public places.

“We think when Texas started opening up, that was May 1, it was young people going to bars and restaurants, out and about, gathering socially,” Pat Herlihy, chief of critical care at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, told the Washington Post. “My hypothesis now is that they’re engaging with the larger families, they’re engaging with the 60- to 70-year-olds — parents uncles, aunts. They’re engaging much more with that vulnerable population.”

Though evidence of the surge in intergenerational cases has been mostly anecdotal, the trend is worrisome enough that some public officials, including Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez, have encouraged young people to mask up and keep their distance from older family members — even when indoors. “Yes, I know it’s a sacrifice,” Giménez told the Post, “but do so because, again, just because it’s your son, or your daughter, or your cousin, or your mother, or your father, doesn’t mean they don’t have COVID.”

But research on intergenerational virus transmission is scant and offers little in the way of consensus. A study of households in Guangzhou, China, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, found that relatives sharing a home passed the virus to about one of eight housemates. Meanwhile, a statistical analysis of household transmission patterns in eight European countries, published in PNAS, concluded that familial interactions had little discernible effect on the pandemic’s spread.

But those are just statistics; emotions often challenge logical decision-making. When our son texted us the other day to let us know he wouldn’t be delivering our 3-year-old grandson for his weekly visit because he and his family may have been exposed to the virus, I found myself more disappointed than relieved. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I cherish this time with The Little Guy and secretly wondered whether paranoia was setting in.

It turned out to be a false alarm. TLG arrived at the usual time — but in full napping mode, which made social distancing a lot easier. He awoke about an hour before his dad arrived to pick him up, allowing for some abbreviated hijinks and a snack before we bid them a fond farewell, not really thinking much about whether we had dodged a bullet.

But I realize now how easy it is for otherwise prudent people to dismiss the pandemic’s dangers in order to satisfy some temporary desire. It’s tempting sometimes to assume that it’s all a crapshoot: Maybe the kids will bring the virus home; maybe they won’t. Sometimes, all you can do is hope the odds are in your favor.

Or simply mask up.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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