Protest Hot Spots Prep for New COVID Outbreaks
The public-health effects of the mass civil unrest may not be apparent—but we will know soon enough.
The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last week has sparked civil unrest in every corner of the nation, including in at least 16 states that are still reporting increased daily case counts of the deadly novel coronavirus.
As public-health experts fear that new outbreaks could worsen infection numbers—and deepen racial disparities among those severely sickened by the virus—policymakers say they have begun to prepare for that possibility from Texas to Pennsylvania.
More than 107,685 Americans have died from the virus with 1,861,966 more infected, as of Thursday afternoon. This week, the White House Coronavirus Task Force was scrambling to track the potential impact of protests on infection rates, according to the Associated Press, reportedly terrified about how an uptick in cases could slow President Trump’s efforts to rebuild the economy—or sway voters in November.
Videos of widely documented police brutality—against protesters, journalists, and even medical workers—have circulated from New York to Austin. And public-health experts who have repeatedly warned against the risk of public congregation during a still-changing global pandemic point out that demonstrators who end up in jails or hospitals may find themselves in even more dire straits. As one public-health expert told The Daily Beast this week: “We have to be careful that racial injustice isn’t compounded by health injustice.”
In an effort to curtail that risk, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Thursday that local public-health authorities in North Texas are working to set up mobile testing units downtown, near protest sites. They should be functional this week and provide at least 1,000 extra diagnostic kits per day, said Jenkins.
“We’re going to encourage protesters to get tested,” said Jenkins. “Through a partnership with the Dallas Mavericks, we will provide masks and sanitizers to protest leaders and to Dallas police, and we’re encouraging protesters to maintain six feet of distance. I’ve also offered all county property for peaceful protests so they can spread out.”
Texas has taken serious heat for its notoriously rushed reopening plan, despite public-health criticism and still-raging surges in highly populated areas of the state. Dallas County on Wednesday reported seven straight days of more than 200 new COVID-19 cases overnight. That same day, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that bars, offices, nonessential manufacturing plants and gyms in Texas could immediately begin operating at 50 percent capacity. Just 24 hours earlier, Dallas County reached a new peak with 16 deaths—the most for the county of any day so far since the pandemic began.
For reference, local news outlets have reported in Dallas and nearby Fort Worth, that hundreds of demonstrators have protested for hours nearly every day for a week. Meanwhile, the largest protest in Houston swelled to 60,000 people on Tuesday.
“We are trying to fight a pandemic, and it does not know the seasons, it does not know baseball,” said Umair Shah, executive director for Harris County’s public-health department. Harris is America’s third largest county, and as of Thursday, it had 13,268 confirmed cases and 241 deaths from the coronavirus. “It’s an unforgiving virus when people are mixing together without preventative measures.”
“We absolutely support the right to protest, the right to vote, but it also comes into contrast with our recommendations we’ve been giving to the community,” added Shah, who suggested that demonstrators use noise-makers over chanting or singing, and try to get tested afterward.
“It’s not just the protests or marches” that could drive a rise in COVID-19 transmissions, Shah explained, citing residents who’ve attended graduation ceremonies or visited reopened bars, gyms, restaurants, and movie theaters. It’s the layering of these activities that worries Shah, he told The Daily Beast. He added that even aside from the marches, Houston has seen a recent increase in hospitalizations, which is not optimal when a possible resurgence is on the horizon.
As Slate reported earlier this week, after several media outlets—including The Daily Beast—reported on a possible new wave of protest-fueled coronavirus resurgences, the discussion has largely been framed as though responsible social distancing necessitates staying home from protests. Indeed, some public-health experts interviewed by The Daily Beast this week warned that the risk of attending such events could have grave consequences on both an individual level and at the community level.
But to counter that narrative, a group of infectious-disease experts at the University of Washington published an open letter Sunday in which they argued that “protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported” by public-health leaders. The protests, according to the letter, also call attention to “the paramount public-health problem of pervasive racism.”
“We express solidarity and gratitude toward demonstrators who have already taken on enormous personal risk to advocate for their own health, the health of their communities, and the public health of the United States,” said the letter, which was signed by more than 1,000 doctors, epidemiologists, medical students, and public health experts.
As has been documented in recent months, black Americans are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and have experienced disproportionate effects of the virus. “Nationally, black people are about three times as likely to die from COVID-19,” wrote Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution research group, in a new 106-page report on the reopening of the U.S. “In some cities and states across the country, black people represent about 80 percent of coronavirus cases.”
“Structural conditions undergird pre-existing health conditions and increase the likelihood of black Americans being exposed to, contracting, and dying from COVID-19,” continued Ray, noting that black people are more likely to work in essential jobs, to live in densely populated neighborhoods with fewer recreational spaces for physical activity, and to live in neighborhoods with less access to hospitals and urgent care clinics—disparities that he said persistent even when accounting for wealth.
But while many public-health experts understand—and some even support—the protest movement, they, along with city leaders, have urged individual diligence when it comes to virus prevention.
“Peaceful protest is a quintessential part of making a more perfect union, but we want to keep people safe,” said Dallas’ Judge Jenkins. “You’re not invincible from the virus just because you’re young, but even if you were, you could take that virus home to Nana.”
Lawrence Gostin—who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law—told The Daily Beast this week that for policymakers, community-based random testing is the best way to create an early warning system for new outbreaks.
Jenkins said Thursday that he hoped Dallas would be able to implement that type of effort in the coming days or weeks, along with the mobile units and free masks and sanitizer. In any case, said Jenkins, it will take weeks before it’s clear whether any new outbreaks—if any are detected—are related to the protests. It can take days before people begin to display COVID symptoms and even longer to access a test.
And Texas is certainly not alone in its increasingly complicated public health crisis.
Nancy Nydam, director of communications at the Georgia Department of Public Health, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that officials are “concerned about any large gatherings that do not follow social-distancing guidelines or use of face coverings or masks” and that authorities are urging anyone who wants to be tested to schedule an appointment at a site—regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. Especially if they recently attended a protest.
Over several days of protests by hundreds of people in Atlanta, more than 300 demonstrators were arrested over the weekend, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As of Thursday afternoon, there had been 48,894 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia and 2,123 deaths.
“If people believe they’ve been in contact with someone positive for COVID-19, they should self-quarantine and monitor for symptoms and to seek medical treatment if needed,” said Nydam. “The incubation period for COVID-19 can be as long as 14 days, so it’s a little early to know what the increases might be,” but the department “will watch for increases from the events of the past week the same way we [monitored] increases from any large gatherings such as Memorial Day weekend.”
In California, daily case reports exceeded 3,000 twice in the past week, according to The New York Times, which called the increase “a new threshold the state had not crossed before.” Mississippi reached a new peak on Saturday with 439 cases, while Arizona, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and 12 other states also reported upward trends, the Times reported. To that end, the White House Coronavirus Task Force was reported this week to be helping to collect data, coordinate supplies and test kits, and advise states—as well as keeping a close eye on major metropolitan areas where protests have occurred.
In New York, case counts have been steadily easing in the aftermath of a terrifying flood of infections, which reached a peak in mid-April of about 10,000 new cases per day. One resident who works at multiple New York hospitals, including Kings County Hospital Center, told The Daily Beast earlier this week that he and his colleagues have been overwhelmed by the fear of more personal protective equipment supply shortages and had already begun setting up outdoor tents to prepare for a possible surge in cases following the George Floyd protests. That resident requested anonymity over fear of work retaliation for speaking to the press. Requests for comment from Kings County Hospital Center, the mayor’s office, and the New York City Health Department were not returned on Thursday.
Dozens of protests attended by thousands of people have occurred this past week across New York City, and as of Thursday, more than 2,000 protesters have been arrested in the city’s five boroughs.
Of course, the risk of COVID isn’t just hypothetical. There have been sporadic stories of protesters who had symptoms or confirmed cases of the virus attending demonstrations anyway—sometimes without masks or adequate social distancing.
In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a 22-year-old protester named Julio Torres reportedly attended a 250-person demonstration on Monday without a face mask—after he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Torres was charged with riot, aggravated assault on police, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to LancasterOnline.
“During the arraignment, it was discovered that (Torres) tested positive, was told to self-quarantine and chose to attend or participate in the protest without proper social distancing, without a proper face mask and has placed other people at risk—both the public who were peacefully participating in the protest and law enforcement,” said Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth, in the local newspaper interview. “I am very concerned that the public and law enforcement has been placed at risk.”
Warden Cheryl Steberger told the newspaper that the prison takes inmates at their word about diseases and cannot compel testing but that all inmates coming into the prison are quarantined.
In a statement to The Daily Beast on Thursday, Maggi Mumma, the deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said Gov. Tom Wolf “supports the ability to peacefully protest” but that it is “essential that we as Pennsylvanians look out for one another, and take steps to protect one another.”
Mumma emphasized that protesters should wear masks and socially distance when possible, but that if anyone feels they may have been exposed to a case of COVID-19 at a Pennsylvania protest, the state health department is prepared to support them.
“Through our thorough contact tracing and testing strategies, we feel confident that if there were to be an outbreak as Pennsylvania continues to open, we would be able to control and mitigate the spread further,” said Mumma.
Meanwhile, in the days before the killing of George Floyd turned Minneapolis into the center of civil unrest, Minnesota had mobilized more than 400 interviewers and investigators to contact-trace the state’s COVID-19 cases in hopes of preventing further spread, according to The Star Tribune. Now authorities are concerned that protest-related cases would pose a new challenge for contact tracers because it would be difficult, if not impossible to trace, everyone who was there.
And as of Tuesday, there were only 25,508 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases reported by the state’s health department—despite suspicion from local health officials that as much as 5 percent of the state’s population had been infected, which would be closer to 280,000 people, according to the newspaper.
At a rally Monday night at the spot where Floyd died, about two-thirds of 1,000 demonstrators were wearing masks, according to the Tribune, and the following day, Minnesota began advising doctors to test first responders, volunteers, and protesters even if they had no symptoms of infection. To that end, the state reportedly offered a $1.5 million contract to firms who agree to increase minority participation in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in 2020, The Star Tribune reported.
The public-health effects of the mass civil unrest may not be apparent—anywhere—today, said the experts who spoke to The Daily Beast on Thursday. But we’ll know soon enough.