Some Experts Warn Protests May Lead to Spike in Coronavirus Cases

Can precautions like masks at protests help slow the spread?

George Floyd protest in New York City
A large protest in New York City responding to the death of George Floyd.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
By Bonnie Stiernberg / June 3, 2020 9:00 am

With protests over the senseless murder of George Floyd sparking up across the nation, some elderly or otherwise immunocompromised people have had to make a difficult choice between showing up to express their support and staying safely quarantined to avoid potentially contracting COVID-19. And as a new USA Today piece notes, some public-health experts have warned that large protests could lead to a spike in new cases.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that these can become breeding grounds for this virus,” Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the publication. “I would not be surprised to see in the next couple of weeks that we see increases that may be linked to protests.”

While many protestors have worn masks while marching to prevent the spread, Mina warns that may not be enough. “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,” he said. However, he added that masks are still worth wearing, noting “there’s a good chance that even homemade masks will actually do quite a bit to help people not get infected and not transmit.”

Other experts, however, point out that racism itself is a public health crisis — noting that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted non-white communities. Dismantling institutionalized racism at all costs is thus necessary.

“Systemic racism also causes large public health impacts and public health risks for large portions of our population,” Dr. Hillary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told USA Today.

“I don’t think using public health as a reason to discourage protests after these events is really appropriate,” Babcock said. “It’s a little disingenuous to say that the health risk from protesting is somehow bigger than the health risk at Lake of Ozarks (where people gathered for fun over Memorial Day weekend) or the practices that brought us to this point in the first place.”

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