Over the past few weeks, people across the country have taken to the streets to vent their frustrations after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25th. It was the same week the nation crossed the 100,000 death count from coronavirus. Health experts have expressed concern that the demonstrations might spread COVID-19, which has infected nearly 2 million Americans as of this writing. Healthcare providers should remind their patients to get a coronavirus test after protesting to mitigate the spread of the disease.
How coronavirus is spreadingEvidence of the protests contributing to a spike in COVID-19 cases will not be seen for a few more weeks because symptoms appear 2 to 14 days after exposure. This delay in symptoms is also what makes it likely that sick individuals are attending the protests without realizing they are infected. In addition, between 40-80% of infected individuals never develop symptoms, which means that people who do not feel ill might attend a protest and unwittingly become a vector of disease spread.
While the outbreak of COVID-19 cases has eased in the Northeast, driving down the overall national numbers, cases have only plateaued in the rest of the country, and they appear to be on the rise in some areas according to COVID Tracking Project data.
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The COVID Tracking Project numbers reflect infections that likely began before the protests. An even larger spike now seems quite possible.
Protesting increases risk of contracting the virus
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, appears to perish quickly in a sunny, humid environment, according to research conducted in April by the Department of Homeland Security. The virus also seems to be more difficult to transmit outside, especially during the day.
However, scientists still do not know enough about the virus to say confidently that large outdoor gatherings are safe.
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While many political leaders have affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they have also urged demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing.
But not all protestors are adhering to public health guidelines. It is nearly impossible to maintain six feet of social distance at all times at a crowded rally, and many protests have involved shouting, chanting, or singing, which research suggests can be especially effective modes of transmission for the virus.
Crowd control tactics increase disease transmission
Tear gas and pepper spray, which police have used to disperse crowds, cause people to tear up and cough, and increase respiratory secretions from the eyes, nose and mouth, further enhancing the possibility of transmission.
In addition, police efforts to move crowds through urban areas can result in corralling people into tight spaces. Not to mention that arresting, transporting or jailing protesters increases the potential for spreading the virus.