Protesting during COVID-19
SciLine reaches out to our network of scientific experts and poses commonly asked questions about newsworthy topics. Reporters can use these responses in news stories, with attribution to the expert.
What are Quotes from Experts?
June 4, 2020
How might gathering to protest affect the spread of COVID-19?
“Gathering to protest can lead to the spread of COVID-19 in various ways. When a person yells—particularly if not wearing a face covering—to chant a slogan they could spread infectious droplets to those in close proximity and infect others. Other aspects of protesting that may lead to the spread of COVID-19 include sneezing, coughing, rubbing one’s eyes with dirty hands after inhaling tear gas, close proximity with others while protesting, and being placed in jail, which prevents individuals from being able to physically distance. COVID-19 spreads easily when people are jammed together or are in small places with others, such as police cars, police vans, and jails.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“Large gatherings like the protests seen across the United States in recent days have the potential to increase transmission of coronavirus. Protestors, law enforcement, and those in the area should take every precaution they can: wear masks, gloves and eye protection, strive for distance between people, avoid touching your face.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“A mass gathering is a mass gathering. When people are socially interacting and unable to social distance, shouting, and being sprayed with agents that caused them to cough it is a simple biological fact the transmission events are going to occur. The sheer numbers of exposures in some cities may be above the threshold that a health department can handle in terms of contact tracing.
“I think it’s important to realize that as this virus is not going to dissipate in the absence of a vaccine that individuals are going to make choices about what risks they think are tolerable based on their individual value hierarchies of what is essential to them. Having a world without racism and drawing attention to that fact is such a reason just as for others, earlier in the pandemic, being able to earn their livelihood was.
“This pandemic has disproportionately impacted African Americans in terms of severe disease and these protests involve many African Americans as well and have even led to the temporary closure of COVID testing sites in predominantly African American neighborhoods, compounding the impact of this pandemic on this demographic.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
What precautions can people at protests take to reduce their risk and limit spread?
“Protesters need to do what they can to best mitigate their risk to prevent themselves from acquiring and transmitting COVID-19. They should wear a mask or face covering that protects their mouth and nose to prevent transmission or acquisition of the virus as well as goggles or some sort of eye protection. They should also try to maintain their physical distance while remaining engaged in the protests. I would also recommend making signs that say what you want to chant and carry noisemakers rather than shouting slogans. Finally, in the event they are exposed to tear gas, I would carry hand sanitizer so they can clean their hands and saline drops as it will help to relieve the sting from the chemical in their eyes.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“Protestors should wear masks, gloves and eye protection, keep some distance between protestors, stay outside in the open, avoid touching one’s face, try not to touch other people or objects held by others (such as signs, food, and beverages). Wash or sanitize your hands as much as possible, and shower when you get home. If you are feeling sick or if you live with people who are the most at-risk for COVID-19 (older adults, immunocompromised individuals, etc.) you should consider staying home and supporting the protests through other types of engagement.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
Should people who attended a protest be tested for the virus afterwards?
“Yes, city and states should provide free and universal testing for all. This includes protesters, demonstrators, journalists, and peace officers. One of the consequences of the protests is that in some places, testing sites have been temporarily halted due to the protests. It will be important to ensure that testing capacities are able to get back up and running.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
Can exposure to chemical agents such as tear gas change a person’s susceptibility to contract or spread the virus?
“Yes, chemical agents such as tear gas can cause sneezing, coughing, and eye irritation. When people cough or sneeze it can cause spread of COVID-19 from those who have infection. When people develop eye irritation from tear gas, they may use their dirty hands to rub their eyes, which can also facilitate infection with the virus.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“We do not know if exposure to chemical irritants like tear gas has an effect on coronavirus susceptibility, as this issue has not been studied. The severe health impacts of tear gas have been extensively documented, particularly for the elderly, children, or those with underlying health conditions.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
What contact tracing methods—if any—can help track viral spread as a result of protests? Are there associated privacy concerns?
“Contact tracing will be challenging in the setting of protests since it is difficult to know all the people you have contact with. There are also concerns for those who are worried about being identified publicly as someone who attended protests. One way to protect others, if you live with individuals who are at high risk from the diseases, is to try and isolate yourself from them so in case you become infected at a protest you don’t infect them.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“COVID-19 contact tracing efforts in most U.S. states and cities are currently very limited and at early stages. The mass mobilizations seen in many places present a significant additional challenge to those contact tracing efforts.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
“Automated contact tracing mobile apps can be a good way to track viral spread; however, privacy is a concern. Some contact tracing apps use GPS, which research has shown enables easy identification of individuals, so in the context of protests these are not ideal. Some states have already used contact tracing location data to analyze protest attendee makeup – a different use of the data from the original. A better, more anonymized option would be a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app, such as the kind Apple and Google are trying to collaborate on with public health departments. Traditional contact tracing methods, in which a trained public health worker interviews an infected person to identify others they may have come in contact with during their contagious period, also work well.” (Posted June 4, 2020)
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Krutika Kuppalli, MD, is an Infectious Diseases Physician, Vice Chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) Global Health Committee and Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
Rohini Haar, MD, MPH, is an emergency physician, medical expert at Physicians for Human Rights, and Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Law
Amesh Adalja, MD, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Mona Sobhani, PhD, Director of Research, Center for Body Computing, University of Southern California