In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody, people across the country are gathering to protest racial injustice in America, even as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Some experts fear that so many large groups meeting so soon after lockdown could be a catastrophic setback for controlling COVID-19. As NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar explained on TODAY this week, "What we've known about this virus is it really does like to circulate and will be transmitted in big crowded areas."
After explaining that individuals considering attending a protest should weigh their "own risk factors ... and tolerance," Azar said that "a couple of states" have already seen a rise in cases since Memorial Day. Health officials are waiting to see if there will be "a more generalized increase following all of these demonstrations," she added.
But for many people protesting, the cause they're fighting for feels too urgent to wait until it's completely safe to gather in large groups. That's why strategies to reduce spread of the coronavirus are crucial for protestors, especially those who live with high-risk individuals.
"I would never use public health as a reason not to congregate to have voices heard," Dr. Thomas Murray, an infectious disease pediatrician at Yale New Haven Children's Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY. "I’d just encourage people to do it safely."
If you're attending a protest, here are some ways to minimize your risk of infection and protect the people in your household from contracting the virus if you pick it up.
Take basic precautions at the protest
Reduce your risk of bringing the coronavirus home by following simple prevention strategies during the protest. Murray and Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, recommend:
- Avoid indoor protests or group gatherings.
- Wear a mask the entire duration of the protest.
- Bring hand sanitizer with you, and use it regularly.
- While it may seem counterintuitive, try to avoid close contact with strangers.
- Keep lots of distance between yourself and anyone coughing or not wearing a mask.
- Don't share supplies with strangers.
- Consider bringing a sign instead of yelling, which propels respiratory droplets farther than breathing or talking.
- Consider wearing protective goggles or a face shield.
Clean up when you get home
Schaffner compared returning to a home with a high-risk individual after a protest to what many health care workers on the front lines of the outbreak go through to avoid infecting their families.
The process for them is often removing all their clothes and shoes as soon as they get inside, throwing them in the wash, and showering immediately to minimize spreading any virus on clothing or skin. Schaffner told TODAY that protestors should consider doing this, but if it's not feasible, wash your hands at the very least as soon as you get home.
Murray also stressed that you should launder your mask each time you attend a protest. Regular-strength detergent and a clothes dryer on hot will kill the virus, he said.
Limit contact with high-risk individuals afterward
Keeping a safe distance from high-risk individuals at home for an extended period of time will likely be the most challenging precaution.
Because the coronavirus can incubate from two to 14 days, Murray advised minimizing contact with high-risk people for two weeks. He also suggested wearing a mask inside the home, especially at times when you must come in contact with them.
At the very least, Schaffner added, avoid hugging, kissing and sharing food or drink for at least two weeks.
Think carefully about testing
Murray said you can consider getting tested, if it'll bring you peace of mind. But the catch is "if you test negative on Monday, you're only negative on Monday," he said — so you still need to take precautions, in case you become sick later or the test was faulty.
Schaffner, on the other hand, discouraged testing altogether (unless you have symptoms) because every protestor seeking a coronavirus test would only further overwhelm the system.
If protestors take precautions as often as they can, Schaffner said he believes the risk of contracting the virus at a demonstration will be relatively low.
"It's outside, and a lot of people are wearing masks," he explained. "I don’t think every demonstration is going to produce an outbreak of COVID. Some of them might but not all."