Public health officials warn new cases of COVID-19 likely will emerge following mass gatherings fueled by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and racial injustice in cities across America.
Health experts fear carriers of the coronavirus, which causes the disease, with no symptoms could unwittingly infect others at protests where social distancing is simply not taking place. The merits of the protesters' cause "doesn’t prevent them from getting the virus,” said Bradley Pollock, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
At least one protester in Tampa, Florida, is known to have COVID-19. Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who expressed dismay last week about Floyd's death, tweeted Monday that five of his officers were exposed to the protester, whom he did not identify.
Protesting – especially without a mask – can put people at higher risk for infection, said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
"There's no doubt in my mind that these can become breeding grounds for this virus," he said during a Monday media availability. "I would not be surprised to see in the next couple of weeks that we see increases that may be linked to protests."
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The challenge, Mina said, is that as businesses re-open, it will be difficult to figure out whether someone caught the virus at a protest or in some other encounter.
Hopefully, the fact that protests are taking place out of doors, will dilute the virus and reduce disease transmission, he said. Wearing a mask will help reduce infections, though it won't completely eliminate risk.
"If there's a floridly positive person who is coughing and spending a whole day around a lot of other people, that person might very well get other people sick despite having a mask on," Mina added, but "there's a good chance that even homemade masks will actually do quite a bit to help people not get infected and not transmit."
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Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency room physician and former Baltimore health commissioner, said there is also the risk of longer-term effects in communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Wen was Baltimore's health commissioner when protests erupted following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. The death triggered protests and civil unrest in communities already burdened with deep-seated inequities, she said.
"When over a dozen pharmacies burned down and closed and stores were looted, it was community members themselves who were affected the most," Wen said.
While protests over the past week following Floyd's death have highlighted police-community relations, demonstrators are also calling attention to social justice issues, including health disparities.
"The same communities that are already the most affected are potentially going to have an increase in the number of cases as a result of people gathering," Wen said.
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Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said anger in the black community has been building for years. Floyd's death spurred them to take to the streets, even as the coronavirus has taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans.
"Black people are risking their lives protesting in the middle of a pandemic that’s killing black folks. That’s real," she said. "There is no convenient time to fight back."
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