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The number of COVID-19 patients under 40 in intensive care in Brazil surpassed older groups last month, a researcher said on Sunday, amid a fatal spike caused in part by a new variant of coronavirus.

The number of people in intensive care units with COVID-19 aged 39 or younger rose sharply in March to over 11,000, or 52.2 percent of the total, according to the Brazilian intensive project.

That was an increase of 14.6 percent of all ICU patients at the start of the pandemic and around 45 percent from September to February.

“This used to be a population that usually only developed a less severe form of the disease and did not require intensive care, so the increase is very significant for this age group,” said Dr. Ederlon Rezende, co-coordinator of the project, an initiative of the Brazilian Association for Intensive Care Medicine (AMIB).

He said several factors could be driving the surge.

Patients over 80, who fell from 13.6 percent to 7.8 percent in intensive care units in Brazil in March, are now largely vaccinated.

Young people are also more likely to be exposed to the virus, whether because they have to leave home to work or because they feel they may be less vulnerable, he said.

Another factor could be the new Brazilian variant P1, which experts say is partly responsible for the COVID-19 death toll explosion in March.

The numbers suggest that P1, which can re-infect people who had the original strain of the virus, may also be more virulent, Rezende said.

“The patients arriving in intensive care units now are younger, have no pre-existing medical conditions and are also developing more severe cases of the virus,” he told AFP.

The number of intensive care patients without previous illnesses rose in March by almost a third to 30.3 percent of the total.

And the proportion of patients who have put on ventilators reached a pandemic record of 58.1 percent in March, according to the project.

Brazil recorded more than 66,500 COVID-19 deaths in March, more than double the hardest-hit country’s previous monthly record in July 2020.

The disease has claimed a total of 351,000 deaths of 212 million people in the country, second only to the United States.

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