October 25, 2020

More than 2 weeks after start of nationwide protests, little sign of COVID spike, but officials remain cautious

When protests started after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, health experts worried that the large gatherings could spark outbreaks of the coronavirus. Yet more than two weeks since those protests hit their peak, there is little evidence that has happened, though officials caution it is far too early — and the circumstances far too complicated — to draw any broad conclusions.

“We’re not seeing an increase in cases associated with the demonstrations (as of yet),” New York City Department of Health spokesman Michael Lanza wrote in an email to Yahoo News on Tuesday.

Between June 3 and June 14, New York City reported an average decline of approximately 8.3 percent in the number of positive cases each day. In the seven days immediately preceding potential post-protest incubation, New York City reported an average increase of roughly 11 percent in the number of positive cases each day.

The question of health risks from mass gatherings is a fraught one, because supporters of President Trump have claimed a double standard, in which some public health officials who have pushed for closures of businesses have recently expressed public support for the protests. While it’s hard to know why the Floyd protests haven’t caused a spike, at least not yet, supporters point to the fact that the protests were outdoors and encouraged the widespread use of face coverings, which organizers even helped distribute.

Analyzing the effect of the demonstrations is complicated by many variables, including irregularities in how daily numbers are reported, overall progress on the coronavirus and protesters from outside the various cities. Also, the demonstrations coincided with reopening measures and warmer weather, which have led more people to venture outside, including in defiance of social distancing recommendations.

Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noted recent crowds at city restaurants and concurred that it is too soon to determine the effect the protests may have had.

“We’re keeping a close eye on the metrics, but at the moment it’s too soon to say what effect things like last weekend’s restaurant crowding or the protests will have, if any. Stay smart, wear a mask and wash your hands,” Azzopardi told Yahoo News.

Julie Bartkey, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, said it may take 42 days from the end of the protests to be clear about their impact.

“Because of the potential for asymptomatic spread of this virus, giving an ‘all-clear’ time frame is difficult,” Bartkey said in an email on Tuesday. “We need to allow about 21 days for the first generation of infections to appear (i.e. 21 days from exposure to test result – 14-day incubation plus another few days to seek health care or get tested and for the result to come to us); but if there is asymptomatic spread in a household, it could be another 14-21 days for those secondary cases to appear.”

For now, however, Minnesota has not seen a high positivity rate in tests from protesters. Bartkey said Health Partners, a health care provider in the state that is conducting testing, has conducted coronavirus tests on 8,500 people at its sites “where the person is confirmed to have been at a protest, vigil or clean up mass event.” Of this, Bartkey said there has been “a 1-percent positivity rate.”

“I cannot give you trends on that,” Nesbitt said in response to a question from a reporter. “We would expect again, because of the incubation period of the virus, that it would be too early to start to make any inference about trends that we’re seeing being related to people’s participation in First Amendment demonstrations.”

Nesbitt also pointed to “complicating epidemiological factors,” which included the phased reopening taking place at the same time as the protests.

At that same press conference, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said that, as of Wednesday, the city had “achieved 13 days of sustained decline in community spread” of the virus.

Chicago has also been a site of major protest activity since Floyd’s death. Kim Junius, a spokesperson for the Cook County Department of Health, which covers Chicago, said it is not possible to draw a conclusion about the protests, although officials there are monitoring the situation.

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