Time will tell if recent protests caused a significant spike in COVID-19 cases

by Caroline Bottger

Amid the worst pandemic in a century, global protests for racial justice were not on anyone’s bingo card. Thousands of people have been protesting all over the world demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. As a result, there are fresh concerns of a spike in COVID-19 infections, especially in the United States. But is there any substance to these fears?

On the face of it, gathering in large groups is indeed risky. Simply being in close contact with an infected person increases your chance of contracting coronavirus. “We should be worried,” UCLA epidemiology professor Shira Shafir told Slate. But it’s not just gathering in large groups that can cause infection. Law enforcement tactics such as pepper spray and tear gas lead to excessive coughing and push people together even more, leading to further spread of the virus. In addition, over 10,000 people have been arrested across the United States since the protests began, contributing to already-crowded jails and prisons where the spread of the virus is already at a much higher rate than outside.

The potential spike comes at a delicate time for the United States. Coronavirus restrictions are being lifted for some states, such as New Jersey and New York, while some public health experts say that some states reopened too soon, which led to increased cases. Cases increased after Memorial Day weekend, when friends and family convened for barbecues and beach trips. Charles Branas, chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told WIRED that “we’re really dealing with a syndemic right now,” or multiple spikes occurring alongside one another. Meanwhile, Dr. James Hamblin pointed out that “didn’t play out in every state in similar ways at all,” adding on Twitter that there is no second wave, but “one long wave.”

Alongside these volatile events, the nature of the coronavirus’ development hinders any quick assessment. Incubation and symptoms can take up to two weeks to appear. There is some potential good news though: research suggests that outdoor transmission is difficult, since the virus does not survive long in sunlight or in places with good air circulation.

So it’s wise to be concerned, and evidence to suggest that cases were increasing before the protests. The Center for Disease Control is urging protesters to get tested, and cities like Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and others are offering free tests, whether a protester is symptomatic or not. To some protesters, the pandemic is the perfect example of why they are in the streets. The pandemic has laid bare the inequity of the American healthcare system, from how black patients are treated by doctors to their ability to access care in the first place. The numbers bear this out too, as black Americans have died of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
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