Yet the public health crisis remains. As of Thursday, there have been 2 million reported coronavirus cases in the United States and 112,000 people have died. Across the board, communities of color account for a disproportionate number of those affected. With people crowding together at demonstrations against police brutality, experts are concerned there could be a subsequent spike in cases.
When it comes to attending a protest, “the risk is clearly nonzero,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health.
Members of the D.C. National Guard have tested positive for the coronavirus since responding to demonstrations around the city. After the first protests outside the White House, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) urged protesters to self-isolate and get tested if they found themselves in high-risk situations at a demonstration.
Bill Miller, an epidemiologist and a physician at Ohio State University, said that people can calculate their risk for exposure by considering four factors: the time spent around other people, the distance you can place between you and others, knowing the people around you and how well they’ve been following social distancing guidelines, and whether you’re gathered outside or inside.
Put simply, Miller formed a rhyme: Time, space, people and place.
Virtually all the protests have been outside, and research shows it’s harder — but not impossible — to catch the virus outdoors, where there’s better air circulation and a chance for droplets of the virus to be carried off into the surrounding atmosphere.
Still, this is a respiratory virus that spreads when we exhale, cough, sneeze, talk and even sing. There’s a case of a choir practice in Washington state where many of those in attendance ended up contracting the virus. And, if singing can spread the virus, experts are concerned shouting and chanting at a protest will have the same effect.
“Shouting is clearly very risky,” Feigl-Ding said. “Masks help, but, again, it helps when everyone does it, and a lot of protesters don’t.”
Any risks are compounded when police fire pepper spray or tear gas to disperse crowds, causing demonstrators to start coughing.
“Protesting has always been violent and risky, even outside of a pandemic,” said Jade Pagkas-Bather, an infectious-disease expert and a clinician at the University of Chicago. “When you toss in a pandemic, that obviously makes things more complex.”
Before you go to a protest or rally, think about how your potential exposure may affect those you live with — especially if you live with older relatives or someone with a compromised immune system, Pagkas-Bather said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that older adults and those with serious underlying medical conditions “might be at higher risk for severe illness” from the coronavirus and its disease, covid-19.
If you do go to a protest, be sure to wear a mask and have hand sanitizer on you, “because you’re going to absolutely need to be prudent about hand-washing,” Pagkas-Bather said. She also noted many protesters understand the risks they are undertaking when they demonstrate in crowds.
“They’re saying that racism is the underlying bedrock … and it’s more detrimental than a virus,” Pagkas-Bather said. “That’s a really powerful stance to take.”
“These videos that we see are little glimpses into some of the violence that has been perpetuated against people of color, black and brown and indigenous folks, for centuries in this country,” Pagkas-Bather said in a phone interview. “It’s starting to really resonate with people who might have not considered its effects in such monumental ways.”
There may be a spike in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, but that’s not to say the protests would be the sole cause. The demonstrations are “one tree in a very big forest,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch wrote in an email. States are beginning to reopen their economies. Whether people follow social distance guidelines and wear masks in public during their everyday lives will ultimately “matter much more” for any spike in the number of cases, Lipsitch wrote.
City health officials in Boston, Dallas, Denver and elsewhere are offering free coronavirus testing for those who participated in protests. It is possible to get a test too early; in the first 24 to 48 hours, a test won’t be able to identify whether you have the virus.
If you plan on getting a test, Miller and other experts recommend going the fourth day after you’ve attended a demonstration or soon thereafter.
“You don’t want to wait too long, because if you’re positive and asymptomatic, you could still potentially be spreading it to other people,” Miller said. “You want to find it as early as you can.”