Health and Science

Protests could accelerate spread of coronavirus, experts say

Erika Edwards
Demonstrators march on I- 35 while participating in a protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on May 31, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Within the last few days, careful social distancing has been overturned by demonstrations against social injustice — as thousands of Americans congregate in cities across the country protesting the death of George Floyd.

The large gatherings, infectious disease experts said, could cause a catastrophic setback for controlling COVID-19 in the U.S. as cities and states try to reopen.

"It makes me cringe on a number of levels," said Dr. Katie Passaretti, medical director for infection prevention at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"It's a setup for further spread of COVID," Passaretti added. "It's heartbreaking."

The national unrest comes amid a global pandemic, which has already sickened more than 1.7 million people in the U.S., killing nearly 105,000.

COVID-19 spreads mainly through close contact, particularly large respiratory droplets from sneezes, coughs — as well as shouting and yelling.

"If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a news briefing Sunday, "because there's still a pandemic in America that's killing black and brown people at higher numbers."

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

"It's concerning on a number of fronts, amid multiple horrible situations," Passaretti said. "It's hard to step back and believe all this is going on at the same time."

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On Sunday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former chief of the Food and Drug Administration warned that the U.S. "isn't through this epidemic" yet. "Chains of transmission will have become lit from these gatherings," Gottlieb told CBS News' "Face the Nation."

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tweeted guidance Saturday for protesting during the epidemic, advising participants to wear a face covering, use hand sanitizer and wear eye protection to prevent injury.

While many protestors at the more than 100 demonstrations nationwide appear to be wearing face coverings, social distancing — keeping at least 6 feet away from other people — is not happening. Face masks are not intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but experts say they can help reduce the risk of spreading the illness to others.

"Masks aren't perfect, but a layer of protection is better than not having anything," Passaretti said.

Passaretti also expressed concern that protesters may be traveling to and from a various cities and states, potentially spreading the virus.

"People are coming from other locations to major cities," Passaretti said. "So not only is there potential for spread at a given protest, people may take that back home," and spread the virus to other areas.