By Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 3 (Reuters) - When a young woman joined her family for a barbecue one recent Sunday in southern Brazil, soon after a night on the town, she had no idea she would infect 18 relatives with the new coronavirus, and three of them would eventually die.
Young Brazilians, energized by the arrival of summer and suffering from social distancing fatigue after months of confinement, have taken to the streets and beaches to party in increasing numbers.
Public health experts warn that an accelerated transmission rate among young people has been a major contributor to a surge in coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths that they fear may be a second wave hitting Latin America's largest nation.
Confirmed cases in the past week have risen to a three-month high in Brazil and deaths have jumped over the last month.
Although young people are less likely to die from the disease, they often take the virus home to family members whose age or prior medical conditions put them at risk, filling up hospital's intensive care beds again in many cities.
Curitiba Health Secretary Marcia Huçulak revealed the case of the young woman as she made an appeal to people to avoid gatherings even within families. State health officials declined to provide the woman's name or other identifying information, citing privacy concerns.
"We are seeing very sad cases like this one of the woman who went to a party and then on Sunday attended her family's BBQ," she said.
Easing quarantines in Brazilian cities have led to crowded bars and restaurants, giving some the impression that life has returned to normal. With the approaching holiday season, experts worry that COVID-19 will spread even faster.
"The greater social movement at the end of the year will end up spreading the virus even more and causing outbreaks and an increase in hospitalizations," said Diogo Xavier, a researcher at the Fiocruz biomedical center in Rio de Janeiro.
"The concern is very great. The government needs to act. We still have the opportunity to take the appropriate measures and prevent this happening. Otherwise we will have a collapse of the health system," he warned.
SCRAMBLING FOR HOSPITAL CAPACITY
Several cities that were dismantling field hospitals used to receive COVID-19 patients in the first stage of the pandemic are now scrambling for more hospital capacity.
With nearly 6.5 million infections and more than 175,000 deaths, Brazil has the third-biggest outbreak, after the United States and India, and the second-highest death toll.
The country's outbreak peaked in late July with almost 70,000 new cases and 1,595 deaths in one day. As the numbers slowly retreated, it seemed Brazil had put the worst behind it, with just 20,000 new cases and 425 deaths a day in late October.
As cities and states have eased restrictions, however, transmission has picked up, with the last week averaging 34,700 cases and 520 deaths a day.
"There has been an upsurge of cases in the past three weeks," the Ministry of Health's Secretary of Health Surveillance Arnaldo Medeiros told reporters on Thursday.
Young adults have felt the greatest mental impact from prolonged social isolation, with 54% saying they are depressed and 70% anxious or often nervous, according to research done by Fiocruz with universities in Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo states.
"The population is very tired of keeping up hygiene habits, wearing a mask and being in isolation," said Fiocruz researcher Celia Landmann Szwarcwald.
"When people were given the OK, they felt liberated and they forgot to use masks," she said.
Rio de Janeiro has postponed until June its famous Carnival party, but that has not stopped preparations for New Year's Eve celebrations that draw large crowds every year. Tickets are on sale for parties atop the city's iconic Sugarloaf Mountain. (Reporting by Pedro Fonseca Writing by Anthony Boadle Editing by Brad Haynes and Diane Craft)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.