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As thousands around the country take to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, medical experts worry that these large gatherings could hinder progress made to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In recent days, people in at least 75 cities across the nation have demonstrated in response to Floyd's death. But the lack of social distancing and uniform use of face masks at such events has put political leaders and public health experts on edge, warning that these large gatherings could lead to a “second wave” of the novel coronavirus especially as states have only recently begun to lift lockdown restrictions and report a decline in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
“I recognized the importance of the protests but I am concerned people are putting themselves at greater risks for contracting coronavirus. Although the protests are outside, which helps with dissipating any virus, people are very close together. Certainly not six feet apart. Many are not wearing masks,” Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer for the healthcare website WebMD, told Fox News in an email.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread from respiratory droplets that are expelled when an infected person sneezes or coughs. But shouting and chanting can also spread infectious particles, possibly resulting in a spike in cases, he warned.
“The main method of transmission is respiratory droplets. The yelling, shouting, and screaming is likely expelling virus and people that are in close contact are likely getting infected,” he continued. “We know that people of color seem to be disproportionately impacted by [the] coronavirus and have worse outcomes when infected. This may [put the] efforts and progress we have made in the last few months in jeopardy.”
Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, with hospitalization and death rates exceeding those of other groups such as whites and Asians.
“We will see in about 10 days the impact of the virus,” Whyte added of a possible surge in cases.
Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven, also remarked on the potential dangers of large gatherings at a time when the U.S. has recorded more than 100,000 virus-related deaths.
“It is a great concern that communities of color, who have disproportionately suffered due to COVID-19, have gathered in large groups without masks and social distancing in many cases. The structural racism and bias that these groups are protesting have also caused these communities to have higher case and fatality rates from COVID-19 and a wider range of health disparities,” she told Fox News in an email.
“Protesters should assemble safely with face coverings and abide by social distancing requirements as much as possible,” she continued, noting the country “cannot lose sight of the fight we are engaged in against this virus while these groups fight for equality.”
In a statement provided to Fox News, Dr. Joseph A. Bocchini, Jr., the president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), stood behind the demonstrators' right to protest peacefully but urged the use of face masks and other precautionary measures while doing so.
"Our hearts go out to all affected by the tragic death of George Floyd. We affirm the right of all individuals to protest peacefully. The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to afflict the country and affects African-Americans in disproportionate numbers reminds us of the critical importance of following public health recommendations essential to controlling the pandemic while protesting," he said. "The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases urges all who protest to do so as safely as possible: wear a face mask, stay at least six feet away from others, use hand sanitizer, use signs and noise-makers instead of yelling, and try to limit your contact to small groups of people.”
The protests have prompted government officials to issue similar warnings, with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms advising protestors “to go get a COVID test this week” because "there's still a pandemic in America that's killing black and brown people at higher numbers." Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned that the protests could become “super-spreader events.” In New York City, the country’s epicenter for the novel virus, Dr. Theodore Long, who is leading the city’s contact tracing initiative, also encouraged demonstrators to get tested.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also took to Twitter over the weekend with guidance for protesting during the coronavirus epidemic.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), also remarked on the protests in relation to the coronavirus, noting that “this country isn’t through this epidemic.”
"There's going to be a lot of issues coming out of what's happened in the last week, but one of them is going to be that chains of transmission will have become lit from these gatherings," Gottlieb told CBS News’ "Face the Nation" on Sunday.