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U.S. health experts, officials warn protests may add to virus spread

The protests over the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis last Monday, have spread to cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Baltimore.

They are bringing together hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people just as the country is reopening after lengthy lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recommended to that city’s residents that if they were at a protest, they should consider being tested for COVID-19.

Health experts say the close proximity of participants, running and yelling or chanting, may increase transmission because people emit more respiratory droplets under these conditions.

“These are large numbers of people getting together closely for prolonged periods of time and often cheering and shouting. So they’re exhaling with vigor. So we know that people without symptoms can spread this virus and it’s possible that, in that circumstance, the COVID virus could be spread to others,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“I’m particularly concerned because, understandably, a lot of the demonstrators are people of color, that’s the issue that they’re demonstrating about, their concerns, and that’s already a population disproportionately affected by COVID,” Schaffner said.

Early data from U.S. states shows African Americans are more likely to die from COVID-19, highlighting longstanding disparities in health and inequalities in access to medical care, experts have said.

At demonstrations in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California on Monday (June 1), participants were wearing masks and some tried to stay six feet apart from other protesters.

“Right now, I’m so angry and it’s more important to be here. The benefit outweighs the risk for me,” said Alexander McDonald, 32, outside San Francisco’s City Hall.

“I think it speaks to us, to the gravity of the moment, that we’re willing to come out here and stand and add our voices to all these other people who’ve made it a priority in their lives, even in this time of the pandemic,” said Jake Wachtel, 33, at the closed entrance to Santa Monica’s pier, where members of the National Guard were stationed.

If there are infections, alerting people that they have been near someone with the virus will be difficult, especially if people do not want it known they attended a protest, Schaffner said.

“Contact tracing requires trust, because a person who’s positive suddenly is contacted by a stranger who identifies themselves as part of the health department. And they will be asking, if you were at a demonstration, whom were you with? Did you go with anyone else? And then give me the names of all your friends over the past week or so. That requires trust. And what these demonstrations have demonstrated is lots of people do not have trust in local governmental agencies,” he said.

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