COVID-19: What About Those Protests?

While not conclusive, evidence suggests that relatively few transmissions of the coronavirus occurred during the widespread protests that followed the death of George Floyd due to the outdoor settings, being in motion and wearing of masks.

July 3, 2020, 6:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Black Lives Matter Protest

People take to the streets of Miami on May 31 to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. | Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock

With new coronavirus infections soaring throughout Arizona, Florida, Texas, and California, increasing in 38 states and Puerto Rico as of July 1, researchers have searched for reasons.

While there appears to be some consensus that the pace of the reopenings of state economies and the relaxing of social distancing restrictions by their respective governors plays a major role, there has been much speculation about how much the massive demonstrations that swept throughout the country following the death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police on May 25 has contributed.

"Now, some public health officials and disease trackers say there appears to be scant evidence the protests sparked widespread outbreaks," reports Chelsea Janes for The Washington Post on June 30. "Others say that because many states reopened about the same time as the protests, and because of the limits of contact tracing, they simply can’t say for sure."

Absent a few positive tests among protesters announced here and there, the only major outbreak tied to protests happened in South Carolina, where organizers postponed demonstrations or moved them online after at least 13 people who took part in previous protests tested positive.

Meanwhile, data from other cities suggests protests have not been followed by an increase in cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed and where the protests began, has registered a steady decrease in case numbers this month.

Janes reports on the very low test positivity rates, the ratio of positive cases to total tests administered, that suggests that transmissions during the protests were not evident. The national average, as of July 1, is 7 percent based on a 7-day moving average, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

According to Minneapolis Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz, more than 15,000 people were tested at centers the city set up in communities affected by the protests, and 1.7 percent of tests came back positive — below the statewide average of about 3.6 percent. Health systems in the area that tested thousands of people who attended the demonstrations returned positivity rates of less than 1 percent.

[Correspondent's note: To see how your state is doing in this critical indicator of the infection rate, see "COVID+ Rate Is", the last column on the first table in the COVID Exit Strategy report card.]

Janes reports on similar findings Oakland, Portland and Seattle. “The data may be imperfect, but we certainly don’t have any evidence that those gatherings outdoors are triggering this increase we’re seeing,” said King County [Washington] Health Officer Jeff Duchin.

In other cities, officials were less willing to dismiss the potential role of the demonstrations. Other activities and events are also recognized as contributing to the surge.

Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal said rising cases there could also reflect infections spread at Memorial Day gatherings and other family events, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; graduations; bars where people failed to wear masks; and “people interpreting reopening as back to normal.”COVID-19.

“You have many other things happening in states opening up. Really the only way, in my view, you can get a sense of where people get infected is through contact tracing,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, who added it is far easier to conduct contact tracing for a small gathering or family party than when tens of thousands of people pour into the streets.

On the other hand, actual documentation exists for what are called superspreading events or activities that are largely indoors, such as a church choir practice in Skagit County, Washington, events at a synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y. and a cult church in Daegu, South Korea.

“While outdoor transmission is certainly possible, it does seem like it happens less frequently and that’s one of the reasons why: Your exposure is going to be higher indoors,” said Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.

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