Massive demonstrations in recent weeks have likely spread the coronavirus among attendees to the demonstrations, experts say.
Ten epidemiologists interviewed by The New York Times backed up an assertion already made by health officials in Houston and Los Angeles: Black Lives Matter protests almost certainly spread the coronavirus among participants. The key question that experts are trying to answer is how much have the protests contributed to the current rise in case numbers.
“In all likelihood, some infections occurred at the protests; the question is how much,” said Mark Lurie, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University. “No major new evidence has emerged that suggests the protests were superspreader events.”
The epidemiologists’ claim contradicts numerous media outlets that have reported a misleading claim suggesting that the coronavirus did not spread through the protests. The Associated Press, a major news wire service, reported on a National Bureau of Economic Research paper in a July 1 article headlined, “Little evidence that protests spread coronavirus in US.”
The AP reported:
There is little evidence that the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death caused a significant increase in U.S. coronavirus infections, according to public health experts.
If the protests had driven an explosion in cases, experts say, the jumps would have started to become apparent within two weeks — and perhaps as early as five days. But that didn’t happen in many cities with the largest protests, including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.
The article obscures the researchers’ interpretation of the data, giving the impression that the coronavirus did not spread during outside protests. The researchers directly contradict that implication in the paper: “In sum, we hypothesize that protests are activities that would increase disease transmission, albeit perhaps in a dampened fashion if countermeasures such as masks are used pervasively.”
The protests, the researchers say, did not contribute to a net increase in coronavirus cases in the short term – for about a week after the protests took place – because people who did not attend the protests were more likely to stay isolated in their homes in the aftermath.
Government contact tracers have tracked few coronavirus cases back to Black Lives Matter protests, but that may have more to do with poor contact tracing operations than a lack of spread among protests. In New York City, which suffered huge losses from the coronavirus, contact tracers are banned from asking coronavirus positive individuals if they attended a protest. Unless the information is volunteered, the government will never know.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also highlighted the difficulty in accurately tracking community spread and the poor operations to do so set up by state and local officials.
“[Communities should] get boots on the ground and to go out there and look for the people, instead of getting on a phone and doing so-called contact tracing by phone,” Fauci told an audience via livestream at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month.
“When you have community spread, it’s insidious because there are so many people in the community who are infected but asymptomatic. So the standard classic paradigm of identification, isolation, contact tracing doesn’t work no matter how good you are because you don’t know who you’re tracing,” Fauci said.
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