The new coronavirus variant sweeping through Brazil, and spreading to other nations around the world, is proving to be up to three times more deadly for young people, according to research.
It is also spreading more quickly among younger people with cases among Brazilians in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are up by 565 per cent, 626 per cent and 525 per cent respectively since the beginning of January, according to Brazilian public health institute Fiocruz.
In comparison, during the same periods the increase in the overall population was much lower at 316 per cent, suggesting the virus infections are making "a shift to younger age groups".
There is also growing evidence shows that young people are not only more likely to get infected with the new strain – dubbed P. 1 – but also to die from it.
The Brazilian Association of Intensive Care Medicine said that the number of 18 to 45-year-olds requiring intensive care for Covid-19 in February to March this year was three times greater than in September to November 2020, and coronavirus-related deaths in that age group have almost doubled.
The data showed a massive 193 per cent increase in coronavirus-related deaths for Brazilians aged 18 to 45, increasing from 13.1 per cent to 38.5 per cent, between the first and second waves.
On the frontline in Brazil, doctors and nurses are noticing an increasingly young cohort of Covid patients filling beds.
"Last year, we had more critical elderly patients. Now, it's completely distinct. We're dealing with a substantial number of severe patients in their 30s to 50s," Dr Anne Menezes from Getulio Vargas Hospital in the jungle city of Manaus, told Al Jazeera.
The 29-year-old said seeing younger patients die is particularly devastating.
"We've recently lost patients my age. It could have been me. We fought hard to save them, but there comes a point when you have to stop," she said.
Variant more infectious and spreading globally
The variant is widely agreed to be more infectious and transmissible generally – by as much as 2.2 times – and 25 to 61 per cent more capable of reinfecting people who had been infected with an earlier strain of the virus, according to recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in collaboration with Oxford University and Imperial College London.
It is now spreading in many nations around the world, and a high-profile series of infections in Canada is adding to significant concerns about how it affects young and healthy people.
The Vancouver region has recently become a hotspot for the P. 1 variant, and now more than half of the players on the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team have tested positive for Covid-19.
Two more names were added to the team's Covid-19 protocol list on Sunday, bringing the total up to 16, and according to several sources there are a few who are in "rough shape". One Canucks player told ESPN he had heard of teammates receiving IV treatments for severe dehydration.
"Fatigue, dehydration – the symptoms are intense," one agent of a Canucks player told the site. "It's knocked a lot of guys out. Some can't even get out of bed."
The source said the more infectious P. 1 variant has been found among several of the cases affecting the Canucks.
Harvard epidemiologist Dr Eric Liang Feigl-Ding said the Canucks cases are cause for concern given they are young elite athletes in prime physical condition.
"More than 50 per cent of its team sickened, many decimated 'very ill'," he tweeted. "Despite strict workplace protocols. Despite big PPE budget. Despite daily testing. The P. 1 variant is just that badass."
Dire situation as Brazil deals with its dead
Authorities in Brazil have been forced to make the horrendous decision to dig up the bodies buried years ago in graveyards to make room for the mounting dead as the nation crashes through new records for Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Gravediggers in the Vila New Cachoeirinha cemetery in the Sao Paulo's northern reaches worked through the night in white hazmat suits to open tombs, bagging decomposed remains for removal to another location.
Although relocating remains is standard in cemetery operations, the municipal secretary responsible for funeral services said the operation has taken on a renewed urgency amid an increasingly dire situation in the South American nation.
Opening hours have been extended to allow late-night burials to keep up with the constant influx of bodies.
Heartbreaking images from other graveyards shows gravediggers working through the night in full protective gear digging rows of graves under floodlights.
At least 66,000 people in Brazil died of Covid-19 in March – more than twice as many fatalities as the country's second-deadliest month of the pandemic, July 2020.
Brazil was already the second-worst-hit nation by the pandemic after the US, but things have slid even further downhill in the past month.
On Wednesday, Brazil's health ministry registered its highest daily Covid-19 death toll for the second day in a row, with the virus killing 3869 people.
The situation is so bad that Brazil now currently accounts for about a quarter of Covid-19 daily deaths worldwide.
Experts predict it will only get worse amid a painfully slow rollout of vaccines and President Jair Bolsonaro's attacks on efforts to restrict movement. The Brazilian leader was famously an early virus denier – before contracting the illness.
Surge in Americas could be 'even larger' than in 2020
As nations across Latin America close borders and impose lockdowns to control the spread of the virus – it is being warned that this latest surge in cases and deaths could be the region's worst yet.
In a news briefing this week, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director Carissa Etienne said "it is no accident" that a recent spike coincides with the summer vacation season in the southern hemisphere.
"Without preventive action, our region could face an upsurge even larger than the last one," she told reporters.
"So, let me be as clear as possible. My main guidance for places experiencing surges in transmission can be summarised in two words: 'Stay home."