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June 1, 2020

Could crowded protests spread the new coronavirus? Experts are divided.

Daily Briefing

    Waves of protests erupted across the United States over the weekend—leading some local officials and public health experts to worry that, as demonstrators gather in large crowds, they could be vulnerable to spreading the new coronavirus.

    New dates added: Your Thursday Covid-19 update

    US Covid-19 cases near 1.8M, death toll tops 104K

    The protests come as the numbers of new cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and related deaths continue to grow in America. U.S. officials as of Monday morning had reported 1,798,700 cases of Covid-19 in the country—up from 1,730,200 cases as of Friday morning. 

    As of Monday morning, officials also had reported a total of 104,381 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 101,635 deaths reported as of Friday morning.

    According to the New York Times, data shows that the growth rates of new Covid-19 cases and related deaths are slowing in some areas of the country, but are accelerating in others. For instance, Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, reported about 700 new cases of Covid-19 and about 100 related deaths on Wednesday—marking the highest daily death toll related to the new coronavirus that the county had reported in two weeks. Similarly, the rate of new hospitalizations related to Covid-19 continues to rise in Wisconsin, and the rate of new cases of Covid-19 reported each day in Minnesota remains "consistently high," the Times reports.

    In comparison, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—which were early epicenters of the country's Covid-19 epidemic—have seen their daily growth rates in newly reported Covid-19 cases decline substantially over the past few days, the Times reports.

    Physicians, experts, and officials warn protests could spark a 2nd wave of Covid-19 cases

    Concerns about another spike in Covid-19 cases in America heightened over the weekend, as hundreds of thousands of protestors throughout the country took to the streets triggered in part by the recent death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minneapolis. 

    Although many protesters wore masks during the events and many of the events took place outside, participants often did not adhere to physical distancing recommendations intended to curb transmission of the new coronavirus, such as avoiding hand-to-hand contact and remaining six feet apart from one another.

    As a result, physicians, public health experts, and government officials are warning that the mass gatherings could lead to a second wave of the country's Covid-19 epidemic.

    Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, said, "Crowded protests, like any large gathering of people in a close space, can help facilitate the spread of [C]ovid-19, which is why it's so important participants wear masks, eye protection and bring hand-gel." Popescu added, "Shouting and screaming, as some studies have shown with singing, can project droplets farther, which makes the use of masks … and eye protection … that much more important."

    Howard Markel, a medical historian who studies pandemics, said the protests reminded him of bond parades that were held in cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which often were followed by surges in new cases of the flu. "Yes, the protests are outside, but they are all really close to each other, and in those cases, being outside doesn't protect you nearly as much," he said.

    In addition, Ashish Jha, a professor and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said arresting, jailing, or transporting protestors could increase the potential for the virus to spread to others. According to the Washington Post, more than 2,500 people were arrested during protests over the weekend.

    Further, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb during an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday noted that the new coronavirus already was disproportionally affecting people of color—and he warned that the protests might intensify that issue.

    As such, Gottlieb said, "Stopping the [epidemic] is going to depend on our ability to take care of our most medically and socially vulnerable." He explained, "You think of people from communities that are disadvantaged. They already lack access to health care. They lack access to testing. So they're not only at higher risk, they don't have the same health care opportunities." Gottlieb added, "We absolutely need to resolve these underlying problems to eliminate the risk of pandemic spreading of the epidemic."

    Some experts say protests might not lead to Covid-19 spikes

    But other experts said it's possible the protests won't lead to spikes in new cases of Covid-19. 

    For example, William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said the fact that many of the protests occurred outdoors may have helped to curb possible transmission of the new coronavirus.

    "The outdoor air dilutes the virus and reduces the infectious dose that might be out there, and if there are breezes blowing, that further dilutes the virus in the air," Schaffner, said. Further, he added, "There was literally a lot of running around, which means they're exhaling more profoundly, but also passing each other very quickly."

    Ultimately, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said whether the protests lead to a surge in new Covid-19 cases is difficult to predict.

    "There are so many variables at play here: Extent of social distancing, ambient environmental conditions, number of people, extent of mask use, the effect of things like tear gas [and] pepper spray on susceptibility via different transmission routes," Rasmussen said. "I don't think there's any way to know how bad it will be … but there is likely to be increased cases in cities with large protests" (Caryn Rabin, New York Times, 6/1; New York Times, 6/1; Bosman/Smith, New York Times, 6/1; Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 6/1; Bernstein, Washington Post, 5/31; Hernandez/Abbott, Wall Street Journal, 5/31; Klar, The Hill, 5/31).

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