with Paulina Firozi

Public health experts spent months telling Americans to stay away from each other to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Now they're not trying to stop tens of thousands of people from doing precisely the opposite: gathering en mass to protest the killing of George Floyd, a black man killed in Minneapolis after police officer put a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“This was such a horrid event, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to do this,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told me last week. “I understand if you’re out there.” 

The coronavirus risks are real. 

Over the past 10 days, thousands of people have flooded the streets in major U.S. cities and around the world, closely packed together and chanting protests — a prime scenario for the highly contagious virus to spread. 

Twenty-three states are already seeing an increase in the rolling seven-day average of coronavirus cases as they reopen, The Post's Joel Achenbach and Chelsea Janes report. Now public health officials are watching for spikes in infections resulting from the mass protests. 

“Since March, the suspension of sports and parades and rallies and concerts had made the sight of large crowds a rarity, an anxiety trigger, even a scandal,” my colleague Maura Judkis writes. “Now, we are seeing massive crowds moving like ice floes on city streets. Protesters crowding shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting and chanting and singing at the tops of their lungs. Police moving in tight formation, manhandling people and spiriting them away to crowded cells.”

It is frustrating some critics who feel authorities are letting politics sway their recommendations. 

When far fewer people protested the statewide lockdowns back in April, they were widely condemned by public health experts and elected officials who said the gatherings could spike cases. 

Now, those same experts argue that protesting police violence is more important than trying to avoid the coronavirus. Medical professionals even gathered Saturday in New York City’s Union Square and elsewhere for their own “White Coats for Black Lives” demonstration.

More than 1,200 health professionals, many of them from the University of Washington’s Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, signed a letter saying they support protests of police violence — but not protests of stay-at-home orders. “We do not condemn these gatherings as risky for covid-19 transmission,” the letter says. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States…This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”  

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the protests “the perfect set-up for the spread of the virus” but did not necessarily discourage participation. “There is certainly a risk,” Fauci told WTOP over the weekend. “It's a difficult situation. We have the right to peacefully demonstrate and the demonstrators are exercising that right.”

"It's a delicate balance because the reasons for demonstrating are valid and yet the demonstration itself puts oneself at an additional risk," he added. “The only thing we can do as public health officials is to keep warning people to be careful.”

Americans who protested the state-imposed lockdowns were also driven by serious concerns — like how locking down states for weeks on end was affecting people economically and emotionally, critics say. 

J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, pointed out the disconnect: 

Tim Carney, columnist for the Washington Examiner:

“In a diverse and highly pluralistic society, authorities don’t get to declare some causes worthy and others worthless,” wrote Megan McArdle, a columnist for The Post.

And Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic that it's passing “politics off as public health” to frame the protests as an act validated by experts despite the clear risks and trade-offs. “To help would-be protesters reach an informed judgment, public-health experts and journalists alike should strive to provide a neutral accounting of the risks involved. The blunt truth is that those risks include at least some chance of death and disease on a terrifying scale.” 

There's an incongruity between the lockdown orders still on the books – and what's happening on the streets. 

Some political leaders are also playing an active role in protests even as many areas still have in place bans on medium group gatherings, leaving many Americans still unable to attend church, sit down to eat in a restaurant or go to an office with all their co-workers.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has joined the protests, though the District just began its phase one of reopening that bans gatherings of more than 10 people. 

So has Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who had previously expressed concern that lockdown protests at her state's capitol could spread the coronavirus yet participated in a protest march on Thursday with hundreds of people who did not follow social distancing rules. 

Some public health experts contend the trade-off is worth it.

“I think people felt any risk of getting covid was offset by the risk of particularly African Americans being killed by a police officer,” Benjamin said.

Yet in raw numbers, the coronavirus has been far more deadly for black Americans. More than 22,000 have lost their lives to the illness in the past three months, while 249 African Americans were shot and killed by police last year, 15 of them unarmed.

Others have argued the disease’s disproportionate effects on black people (we’ve reported on that here) is enough reason for protesters to participate in activities that clearly violate social distancing guidelines. 

Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist:

Abraar Karan, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital:

Andy Slavitt, who led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama:

Frieden has similarly given a nod of approval to the Floyd protests even though he has criticized states for reopening too quickly. Over the weekend, he noted that large gatherings increase the risk of spread.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) have also expressed concerns about the risks of transmission from protests. 

Others point out the link between coronavirus and the protests. 

“Far from being separate crises, the deadly epidemic of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the sudden explosion of street protests against police violence are intimately connected, according to protesters and public and mental health professionals,” Marc Fisher, Peter Jamison and Ava Wallace report. 

“People are so pent-up with frustration from being inside for so long,” Patricia Newton, chief executive and medical director of the Black Psychiatrists of America, which has about 2,000 members, tells my colleagues. “That was the kindling, and the police brutality lit the fire. People tell me, ‘I need to get out of the house,’ and ‘I’m having cabin fever.’ When people feel hopeless, they feel they have nothing to lose and caution goes to the wind.” 

Newton has advised protesters to weigh the health risks of large gatherings: “I keep telling people, ‘You can’t protest if you’re dead and you can’t protest if you’re on a ventilator,’ ” she told my colleagues. “If the people in your home and your community get the virus because of your unwillingness to take precautions, who are you helping? But when people get angry, they stop thinking.”

Sometimes protesters are taking precautions — but sometimes they’re not.

Over the weekend, more than 10,000 people flooded into the nation’s capital for protests that felt more like a carnival than a battle space, my colleagues reported. There were no longer military tankers and officers braced behind riot shields, like earlier in the week. As the Saturday protests wore on, people took off their shoes and kids played in the water of the Reflecting Pool.

“The music thumped all afternoon, from speakers hauled in and running on generators,” they wrote. “Many seemed less worried than in previous days about the pandemic still killing so many people of color, with decidedly fewer protesters wearing masks or squirting their hands with hand sanitizer.”

Benjamin recommends this: people with coronavirus-like symptoms skip the protests and stay at home. Others who choose to go should wear a mask, regularly use hand sanitizer and do their best to physically distance from others. Afterward, they should self-quarantine as much as possible. 

But he acknowledged that keeping a social distance at a protest isn’t exactly easy.

“I know it’s almost impossible to do in a crowd like that,” he said.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Louisville, like the rest of the nation, is confronting the coronavirus and systemic racism. 

The pandemic has sharpened the disparate experiences for black and white people in the city. But the shooting deaths of Breonna Taylor, a black emergency medical technician, and black restaurant owner David McAtee “showed the persisting depth of the divide,” Ava Wallace, Roman Stubbs and Jesse Dougherty report in this in-depth piece. 

“Louisville is like so many other cities,” Christopher 2X, an anti-gun violence activist, told The Post. “Because of the pandemic, because of the issues with job losses and unemployment connected to it, I think there is a lot of built-up frustration, along with the compounding issues that went with everyday life, especially in poor communities. When Breonna’s case went national, … it started to enhance those sentiments and energy.”

2X’s 25-year-old daughter, Heaven, tested positive for the coronavirus last month. 

Her positive test “was like a mirror for Louisville, where, as in cities across the country, African Americans face a greater risk of contracting the virus,” they write. “By the first week of June, nearly a third of the city’s cases were among black residents, though just 22 percent of its population is black. The YMCA where Heaven works is in Russell, a typical West End neighborhood: 89 percent black, with a life expectancy of 69.5. That’s 10 years lower than the national average. And it’s 11 years lower than in the Highlands, an almost all-white community, just three miles from Russell on the other side of Ninth Street.” 

OOF: Health workers on the front lines are grappling with the great loss they’ve witnessed amid the pandemic. 

Many doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians say they have felt lost and alone in the past few months. They are unable to sleep, experience panic attacks and second-guess decisions as they worry nonstop about their patients, their families and themselves. They wonder when this will end, Ariana Eunjung Cha, Ben Guarino and William Wan report.

Health-care workers said they're experiencing feelings of despair fighting the novel coronavirus. Mental health experts fear they could suffer "moral injury." (The Washington Post)

“The unfathomable loss of more than 100,000 Americans within a matter of weeks — many in isolation, without family or friends — has inflicted a level of trauma anticipated when they signed up for these jobs,” they write. “At least 592 of those few deaths were of health-care workers, according to a list compiled from news reports, social media and other sources by the National Nurses United union.”

These workers struggle with the death and devastation they have witnessed as well as their feelings about an inability to do more or save more lives. 

Hospitals and ambulance companies have brought in grief counselors via Zoom and started providing resources such as prayer circles, as concern grows about a generation of workers with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

OUCH: Some patients with severe coronavirus cases are taking days or weeks to wake up once they’re taken off ventilators. 

When they do regain consciousness, “many face the need for months of cognitive and physical rehabilitation, and some might never return to their previous level of functioning,” Dan Hurley reports for The Post.

Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York who specializes in treating disorders of consciousness, told The Post: “Some of these patients, we wean them down off sedation, take the breathing tube out and right away they give us a thumbs up, or a few words … But there are others who are still not following commands and still not expressing themselves weeks later.”

An April 28 paper in Neurocritical Care found the neurological effects include “mental fog,” memory lapses, fatigue or dysfunction that requires lengthy rehabilitation. 

The Trump administration's response

The Trump administration has yet to spend more than 75 percent of the humanitarian aid Congress approved in March. 

Lawmakers approved $1.59 billion in pandemic assistance three months ago that was meant to be sent overseas though the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development to help coronavirus victims. 

But as of last week, $386 million had been released to nations in need, the New York Times’s Lara Jakes reports. And relief workers have expressed alarm as to why most of the funding has gone unspent. 

“That money was delivered through private relief groups and large multinational organizations, including United Nations agencies, that provide health and economic stability funding and humanitarian assistance around the globe,” Lara adds. “Of that, only a meager $11.5 million in international disaster aid had been delivered to private relief groups, even though those funds are specifically meant to be rushed to distress zones.” 

In the states

Some states across the country are reporting a spike in new cases as they ease lockdown restrictions. 

Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Utah are among those states that have reported an increase in confirmed cases, the Wall Street Journal’s Talal Ansari and Brianna Abbott report, citing data from Johns Hopkins. 

“The U.S.’s overall daily count of new coronavirus cases has declined steadily in recent weeks. It is now hovering around 20,000, down from a peak of more than 30,000 in April, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Daily deaths are also trending downward, and overall testing continues to increase gradually,” they add. “The overall drop in new cases in the U.S. is largely because of progress in heavy-hit states. Some states, including Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York continue a decline in daily cases. Others are logging increases or remain relatively steady.” 

Florida specifically set a single-day record for cases since the state began reopening. 

Florida's Department of Health reported at least 1,495 cases as of Friday, which brought the state’s total number to more than 61,000, Newsweek’s Matthew Impelli reports

“The number of cases reported on Friday marked a new single-day high number of cases since Florida implemented phase one of its reopening plan on May 18,” he writes. “The previous single-day high was on April 17, when the department reported at least 1,416 new cases.” 

More to know

One of the authors of two retracted papers on covid-19 had his faculty appointment at the University of Utah “mutually terminated.” 

Amit Patel, who noted the affiliation on papers published in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, “appears to have played a key role in involving a little-known company that has ignited a firestorm of controversy,” Stat News’s Matthew Herper and Kate Sheridan report. 

“Within hours on Thursday, the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine both retracted papers on which Patel was a co-author,” they report. “The paper in the Lancet, in particular, received widespread attention because it raised safety concerns about the drug hydroxychloroquine based on what was purported to be a huge amount of data collected from health records from hundreds of hospitals all around the world.” 

“The terminated position was an unpaid adjunct appointment with the Department of Biomedical Engineering,” a university representative told Stat, though the spokesperson declined to comment on whether the move was related to the retractions. 

Coronavirus latest

Here are a few more stories to catch up on after the weekend: 

 

The hardest hit: 
  • This family of four lived in a state of near homelessness before the pandemic hit. When they were unable to collect stimulus funds and unemployment checks, they were forced to live in their car, Greg Jaffe reports.
The economic fallout: 
  • Because of a “misclassification error,” the U.S. government’s May unemployment rate looks better than it is. Heather Long explains what happened.
  • Those going back to work as discovering a more burdensome task than before: Hours have been slashed, pay has been cut, and there are more responsibilities and less job security, Tony Romm and Jacob Bogage reports.
Around the world: 
  • The number of coronavirus deaths in Brazil is surging. President Jair Bolsonaro seems to be limiting the amount of data being released to the public, Terrence McCoy reports.

Sugar rush

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on June 7 participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Washington, D.C., alongside hundreds of evangelicals. (The Washington Post)