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Researchers gauge the effect of protests and reopenings on reviving the pandemic

Alan Boyle
·5 min read
Activists Malcolm Frankson (speaking) and Jack Eppard Barajas (right) discuss police reforms with a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Social distancing, masks and gloves are among measures being taken to avoid spreading coronavirus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)
Activists Malcolm Frankson (speaking) and Jack Eppard Barajas (right) discuss police reforms with a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Social distancing, masks and gloves are among measures being taken to avoid spreading coronavirus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Epidemiologists say the crowding conditions associated with mass protests over police violence seem likely to add dozens of people, or perhaps even hundreds, to the daily death toll from coronavirus infections.

But they acknowledge that these sorts of assessments involve a tradeoff between public health and social justice.

“Racism and state-sponsored violence are critical public health issues,” Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote in a weekend string of tweets. “We should also acknowledge that the specific action of large-scale public protest at this moment during the COVID-19 pandemic may result in perhaps more than 10 but less than 100 deaths per day.”

In response to feedback, Bedford later revised his estimate to “a highly speculative” guess of more than 50 but less than 500 extra deaths for each day of protest.

Bedford and other coronavirus trackers pointed out that the protests are coming amid widespread relaxation of strict rules on social distancing and business activities. That will make it all the more difficult to tease out the specific causes behind what’s likely to be an upswing in infections.

“The protests and potential to transmit virus are on a background of general societal opening,” Bedford said. “It feels as though we’ve largely given up on controlling the epidemic and have resigned ourselves to living alongside it.”

For example, Las Vegas started reopening its casinos last week, with 150,000 hotel rooms waiting to welcome guests.

“Casinos are indoors, crowded, and I bet most gamblers aren’t wearing masks,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch observed in a tweet. “What numbers of transmissions are happening there? At Lake of the Ozarks (again, shouting, crowding, no masks)? Etc.?”

Researchers expect the impacts of virus-spreading events to start having an effect on case statistics about two to three weeks afterward. The chart for active COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has been showing an uptick since June 4, but it’s not yet clear whether that’s a solid trend. Statistics on daily new cases, for example, still show a relatively steady ebb and flow on a weekly cycle.

The groups organizing the protests have joined with public health officials in urging protesters to take precautions against virus-spreading. For example, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County has put together a safety guide that parallels the recommendations from Public Health – Seattle & King County — with extra twists.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

“At a protest, it is sometimes impossible to remain 6 feet apart from other protesters,” Black Lives Matter’s safety guide says. “To limit your exposure wear a face mask, gloves, and even cover your hair. For further protection, cover as much visible skin as possible without hindering your vision.”

The guide also tells protesters to self-quarantine and monitor symptoms regularly for 14 days after attending a group gathering. “If you start exhibiting symptoms, get tested IMMEDIATELY,” it says. (Tests are available through health care providers or at more than 15 free COVID-19 testing sites in King County.)

You should stay away from any sort of gathering if you’re feeling sick.

Do all these safety measures make that all that big of a difference? Yes, according to a statistical study published today in the journal Nature.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley gathered data about infections from the United States, China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and France — and looked for correlations with 1,717 policies implemented in those six countries.

They concluded that travel restrictions, shelter-in-place orders, closures and other non-pharmaceutical interventions averted roughly 530 million infections during a period ending April 6. About 62 million of those infections would have been identified as confirmed cases, given the limited capability for testing that existed at the time, the researchers said.

Some worried that focusing on the risks associated with large gatherings would blunt the impact of the protests.

“Both the pandemic and police brutality, along with other forms of violent systemic racism, are disproportionately killing Black Americans. They are equally serious symptoms of underlying inequality. Both require urgent solutions,” Penn State epidemiologist Nita Bharti tweeted.

Responding to the tweets from Bedford and Lipsitch, Bharti said, “Assigning ridiculously rough numbers here seems unnecessary and misleading. … There is no ‘choice’ between the inequity of the pandemic and the protests.”

Bedford acknowledged that concern, but said he hoped scientists could at least provide a reality check for the punditry emerging amid the protests.

“My estimates / guesses were born out of seeing takes of massive spikes following protests and wanting to do my best to ground some estimates (even if speculative),” he wrote. “If the [epidemiology] modeling community leaves this as a vacuum, it will be filled with takes from pundits.”

Update for 2:45 p.m. PT June 8: The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted today that the daily tally of coronavirus cases amounted to more than 136,000 on June 7, “the most in a single day so far.” He said that for many countries, “the biggest threat now is complacency,” but he also addressed the worldwide protests against racism:

“WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism. We reject discrimination of all kinds. We encourage all those protesting around the world to do so safely. As much as possible, keep at least 1 meter from others, clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest.”

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