For eight days and nights, tens of thousands of people have been protesting and marching in the US to ask for justice for George Floyd, a Black man who was killed when ex-police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. People are chanting “we can’t breathe,” holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” and emphasising that our country’s history of police violence is deadly and dangerous. In fact, some are calling it a public health crisis.
Right now, however, protesters are grappling with another health crisis: COVID-19, which has killed over 100,000 people so far across the US and 383,000 worldwide. The CDC still recommends social distancing, and while some states are starting to loosen up their previous stay-at-home orders, many still have protective measures at place around large gatherings. And, of course, many of these protests are large, closely packed gatherings.
This is fuelling concerns that protests could turn into “super-spreading” events, which occur when dozens of people are infected at a single gathering. For example, in March, 52 people (out of the 61 present) became ill after attending one particular choir practice in Washington state. Only one person had “cold-like symptoms” a few days before the practice. But it’s too soon to say whether the protests will cause any increase in COVID-19 cases, let alone qualify as super-spreading events.
Hundreds lay down for 9 minutes of silent protest in the parking lot at the Crystal Lake City Hall/Police Dept at today’s Black Lives Matter protest happening right now pic.twitter.com/nPYpL3zQz1— Matthew Apgar (@mattapgar) June 3, 2020
Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, GA, told CNN that she’s troubled by the idea that the marches and protests could increase the spread of COVID-19, particularly among communities of colour, who’ve already been disproportionately killed by the coronavirus.
“I am extremely concerned when we are seeing mass gatherings,” she said. “We know what’s already happening in our community with this virus. We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”
There are things you can do to lessen your risk while making your voice heard, such as wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser. But what you do after you protest may be equally as important. Experts believe coronavirus has a two to 14 day incubation period, and you might be contagious 48 to 72 hours before you notice your first symptoms. That means you could spread it without realising you have it. You could also be completely asymptomatic the entire time you’re infected and contagious.
The safest course of action would be to self-quarantine entirely for two weeks after attending a protest. Monitor yourself for the development of symptoms, such as a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, says, Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center For Health Security in an infectious disease position.
If you must be around others, especially people who are in a high-risk group, consider getting a COVID-19 test beforehand. Just know that getting one too early after exposure to the virus can result in a false negative, The Minneapolis Star reported.
Every platform I get, every Grand Rounds I give, I talk about police violence and racism. I study it. I write about it. And for YEARS, I’ve been pushing my peers to do the same. For those asking, what can I do? Read and learn. Then treat police violence as the health issue it is.— Rhea Boyd, MD (@RheaBoydMD) May 31, 2020
If you experience symptoms, talk to a doctor ASAP. But… be careful. They will likely ask you to think back to where you’ve been over the last few weeks if you present with COVID-19 symptoms, for contact tracing reasons. And, especially if you’re a person of colour, you could experience discrimination if you tell healthcare professionals you’ve been protesting, warns Gabrielle Doe*, an epidemiologist in Louisiana. (She asked her name to be changed, due to fear of repercussions from her employer.)
“Medical racism is insidious,” says Doe. “Telling people with certain biases that you were protesting and possibly causing the uproar that they’re seeing on the news — mixed in with their internal biases — may foster a sense of animosity towards you.” If you say you were at a protest, Doe says that biased medical professionals might treat you differently, turn you away entirely, or even turn your name over to the police.
PROTESTORS: COVID-19 has a 2-14 day incubation period. If you start seeing signs of illness, healthcare providers WILL ask you where you’ve been within a 2-week period for contact tracing efforts. Medical racism is real & some of those providers may not treat you bc of this— Buffy Summers (@NotGeauxGabby) May 31, 2020
When asked, you can simply tell your healthcare practitioner that you have reason to believe that you’ve been in a place with high exposure. “You don’t even have to say you were at a protest,” says Dr. Adalja. “Most hospitals are treating everyone right now as a coronavirus patient, but they rank them on what their suspicion is, and get you more rapidly tested or triaged based on that.”
You can also say: “I think I may have been exposed, but I’m not sure when,” Doe says. “This is when the symptoms started, I went to the store and could have gotten there, I went to the pharmacy. Keep it as vague as possible, especially if you look a certain way or you’re from a disadvantaged background… With all the heightened tensions, you don’t know what people are thinking. Protect yourself and make sure you’re getting the care you deserve.”
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