Experts warn protests could trigger surge in COVID-19 infections

As the protests against police brutality grew larger and more tense over the weekend, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a stark warning Saturday.

"If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to get a COVID test this week," Lance Bottoms says.  "Because there is still a pandemic in America that's killing black and brown people at higher numbers."

Dr. Jay Varkey, an Associate Professor at the Emory School of Medicine and infectious diseases physician, says he would not be surprised to see a second wave of infections linked to the protests.

"I think it's a very real possibility," Varkey says.  "The situation, as we move into summer, is that any type of mass gathering runs the risk of seeing an increase in transmission of infection, and that includes public protests."

Many of the protestors were wearing masks, but some were not.

One factor that may lessen the risk of transmission, Dr. Varkey says, is the crowds were outdoors, where it’s harder for the virus to spread from one person to another.

"But, I do get concerned when I see a lot of people packed in together," Varkey says.

There is typically a lag time of a few days between when a person becomes infected with the virus and when they begin to feel ill, and it takes time to conduct testing and report the data.

So, it could be two weeks before we know if the massive protests have triggered a spike in new infections, as some public health experts worry.

If you choose to protest, Dr. Varkey says, there are some things you can do to lower your risk of getting infected with the novel coronavirus and possibly infecting other people, too.

First, he says, wear a mask; you should have one on anytime you are going into a public setting.

"Venturing into a setting where there are hundreds, even thousands of people, it's critically important, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others," he says.

Next, Dr. Varkey says, think about wearing eye protection.

 "This can either be a facial shield, safety glasses or eye goggles," he says.  "Again, the intent there is not just to protect against injury, but also to protect against the virus.  You could actually inadvertently expose yourself to, by rubbing your eyes, or touching a contaminated surface, and touching your eyes.”

He also recommends bringing hand sanitizer with you, and using it often to disinfect your hands.

Keeping your distance from other people can be challenging in a crowd of thousands.

Still, Varkey recommends staying at least 6 feet away from other protestors.

The respiratory virus that causes COVID-19 is typically spread through airborne droplets, when an infected person shouts, coughs or sneezes.   

So, Dr. Varkey says, carrying a sign may be a safer option than shouting.

"Protesting silently, or avoiding situations where you're yelling, or someone is yelling at you, is another practical way to try and minimize the risk," he says.