The coronavirus pandemic that upended everyday life and killed more than 104,000 Americans no longer leads the newscasts as protests against police brutality roil major cities, sparking concern that the public may let up its guard against the insidious disease.
Disease trackers already feared a second wave of transmission as businesses slowly reopened and people eager to socialize crowded into beach towns and summertime party hubs.
Now, people marching or rioting in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis aren’t practicing social distancing, either, creating fears that protests will become “superspreader” events.
“Don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We’re talking about reopening in one week in New York City, and now we’re seeing these mass gatherings over the past several nights that could, in fact, exacerbate the COVID-19 spread,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “We spent all this time closed down, locked down, masks, socially distanced — and then you turn on the TV and you see these mass gatherings that could potentially be infecting hundreds and hundreds of people, after everything that we have done. We have to take a minute and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing here?’ “
The Democratic governor said he shares the protesters’ outrage and noted that America’s struggle with racism extends far beyond the Minneapolis incident. Still, he is concerned about the gatherings.
“How many superspreaders were in that crowd?” he said before addressing the fact that many protesters weren’t in the most vulnerable age group. “How many young people went home and kissed their mother ‘hello’ or shook hands with their father or hugged their father or their grandfather or their grandmother or their brother or their sister and spread a virus?”
Protesters in cities across America are shouting, potentially releasing virus-laded droplets. Although they are outside, allowing viral particles to drift off, demonstrators are so close together that there is plenty of risk.
“The single thing that I am most worried about is a lot of these folks aren’t wearing masks or have them down around their neck, and a lot of police aren’t wearing masks,” said Jordan Strauss, managing director for business intelligence and investigations at Kroll, a global risk consultancy.
Personal protective equipment “is already in short supply, and we are dealing with an extremely transmissible virus hitting minority communities particularly hard,” he said. “I’m concerned about legitimate protesters and their families getting sick.”
Some violent provocateurs don’t live in the places where protests are happening, so “they could carry the virus into places it hasn’t been before. It is a huge risk right now,” said Mr. Strauss, who once served as a director at the White House National Security Council specializing in incident management.
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December and has spread around the globe.
It has infected 1.8 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 104,000. Nursing homes have been hit incredibly hard. Federal officials have obtained reports of nearly 26,000 nursing home residents dying from COVID-19, according to materials prepared for the nation’s governors and provided to The Associated Press.
As transmission slows across the country, however, states have begun to reopen restaurants, shops and offices to get the economy revving again.
The protests are “another one of these things that we have to balance as a society. We’re balancing economics against prevention of transmission. In this case, we’re balancing freedom of speech and freedom to protest against epidemic parameters around the infectious disease,” said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Although some of the protesters are wearing face coverings that can slow transmission, many aren’t. Asymptomatic people can spread the coronavirus, so they might not know it when they hit the streets.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that these can become breeding grounds for this virus,” Mr. Mina said. “The one benefit is that they tend to be outside.”
Hopefully, he said, breezes and other outdoor conditions will distribute many viral particles away from the crowds.
The New York City Department of Health tweeted tips to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. It urged those who “plan to protest” to wear face coverings, use hand sanitizer and use noise-makers instead of yelling. It also advised protesters to stick to small groups and stay at least 6 feet away from other groups.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told local residents to get tested for the virus after mingling with other protesters.
“A mass gathering is a mass gathering,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “When people are socially interacting and unable to social distance, shouting and being sprayed with agents that caused them to cough, it is a simple biological fact the transmission events are going to occur.”