What risks are there in attending a protest rally?
Modelers say it’s difficult to assess how the protests will influence COVID-19 infections. But it’s clear that a key ingredient for transmission is present at many of these rallies: close contact.
The images of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder — some wearing face masks, others not — raise concerns, especially in cities with higher rates of infection. Earlier this week, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was concerned about what mass gatherings in the streets “could mean for spikes in our coronavirus cases later.” She urged protesters to consider their exposure and consider being tested.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced free tests for demonstrators this week. Officials in Atlanta and New York have suggested testing as well. San Francisco is also among the cities with pop-up testing for protesters.
[Note: In L.A., almost all COVID-19 testing facilities were shut down early in the protests, but have since reopened. Experts have urged protesters to seek testing and have expressed particular concern about tear gas used by law enforcement during protests here — a tactic that could lead to more cases of COVID-19.]
“Testing everyone that participated in demonstrations would be useful in communities where many new cases are being reported every day. These new cases indicate that transmission is occurring at a high rate in the communities,” said Bill Miller, an epidemiologist and physician at Ohio State University.
He said there are several scenarios that could give rise to the spread of the virus or even a superspreader event, where a number of people become infected. For instance:
“You might have a small number of infected people who are particularly active, moving around in the crowd. If one or more of these people are shouting often and not wearing a mask, the situation is a setup for a superspreader event.”
He said an alternative to testing everyone would be active contact tracing. “With new cases, the tracers could ask about demonstration participation, including days and times,” Miller said. Then, if cases are linked to a demonstration, a call could go out to get everyone who participated in that event to be tested.
Being outdoors seems to reduce the risk of exposure because the virus can’t survive long in sunlight and there’s better air circulation, but it’s no guarantee against infection. So, to reduce your own risk, it’s best to continue practicing social distancing and wear a face mask. There have been family-friendly events where protesters sit in a public space such as a park or library grounds, remaining six feet apart.
And, of course, remember to wash your hands — or use hand sanitizer — after touching others or shared surfaces.
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