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Could large street protests lead to more COVID-19 cases?

A peaceful Black Lives Matter march in downtown Indianapolis.
A peaceful Black Lives Matter march in downtown Indianapolis.

With more states reopening, public health experts worried that COVID-19 would continue to spread. Those concerns have been compounded recently as large crowds gathered to protest police brutality and killings of black Americans. 

Side Effects Public Media’s LaurenBavisspoke with OgbonnayaOmenka, a professor of public health and health disparities at Butler University, about protesting during a pandemic.

Butler University professor Ogbonnaya Omenka
Credit Photo courtesy of Ogbonnaya Omenka
Butler University professor Ogbonnaya Omenka

Ogbonnaya Omenka : I must point out that you are now looking at a public health problem within another public health problem.Violence in itself is and should be classified across the board as a public health problem in our nation. Now, these protests as a result of police action are happening within the COVID-19 crisis. 

Lauren Bavis :How does this complicate the idea of contact tracing,of trying to figure out who’sinteractedwith whom and how the virus could spread that way? 

Omenka :In an ideal world, the public health response or approach to mitigating the transmission of the virus during public gatherings, including these protests,would be toregularly test as many of the participants in these protests, as many of them as possible.  

These are not all friends or people who live in thesame neighborhood. So I may not know who I stood next to or who I even hugged or shook handswith orwhatever that people do in terms of social solidarity. 

Bavis :People may have attended protestsaround thecountry and worn masks or tried to use hand sanitizer, but in Indianapolisand across the country, police used tear gas and people were coughing and unable to breathe. Peoplewerechanting and yelling, and if large numbers of people arearrested,they might be packed into jails.So what does that mean forvirustransmission? 

Omenka : You would expect locking people up tear gassing, coughing, you know, and all of these things that we are seeing yes, normally they should add to the spike in the number of infections and cases. 

Bavis:COVID-19 is a disease that disproportionately affects black and brown people, who have been leading the protests. Does that make this an even greater public health concern?     

Omenka :So, we have a scenario where a lot of people from the black community are distrustful of anything publichealth, of anything government. So, never mind that there are not enough resources within these communities, but even when you try to implement anything, evenlifesaving interventions, membersof black communities may not be open to these interventions because of the lack of trust. 

You're talking about asking people their whereabouts, to give information about others that they know. But we know over the years how that same process has been used,or that the members of the black community feel like when they reveal information about themselves, that leads to damage being done to them. 

Bavis :Are there any steps people can take if they want to attend a protest while there is still concern about the virus spreading? 

Omenka :What we can do and what we will continue to do as publichealth,orasjust,you know, in this context is torecommend what we think are the helpful approaches,such masks and hand washing and wearing eye protectionand alsostayinghydrated and,if it’spossible, for the protesters or theparticipants to move in smaller groups.We know that these may not be realistic,given the nature orthe context of theactivities. 

I don't think it's effective to shift the burden of safety to the participants in the protests. Police also,or any authorities involved in responding to the protests,should also be educated or exposed tothe information necessary for their participation. For example, police exercising restraint when there is no provocation. Iknow the authorities are there to maintain peace and order. But it is important also that we factor in the public health aspect into allof this.

Contact reporter Lauren Bavis at  lbavis@wfyi.org  or follow her on Twitter  @lauren_bavis

This story was produced by  Side Effects Public Media , a news collaborative covering public health.

Copyright 2020 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.