NEW YORK • None of the plans for how the US might safely emerge from the coronavirus lockdown involved thousands of Americans standing shoulder to shoulder in the streets of major cities or coughing uncontrollably when the authorities used tear gas to disperse them. No one planned on protesters being herded into crowded prison buses or left in crowded cells.
Before the eruption of outrage over the killing of Mr George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis late last month, debates about reopening centred on whether states had adequate systems in place to detect and treat cases of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 110,000 people in the United States since the beginning of the year.
But as the protests against police brutality moved past their second week, public officials are warily watching for signs that an unanticipated end to social distancing on a mass scale has led to new cases of the virus.
On Sunday, infectious disease experts debated on Twitter over how to supply a reliable estimate of the impact of the protests on virus transmission – or whether trying to do so may wrongly be seen as discouraging participation in the growing racial justice movement.
In what he called a back-of-the-envelope estimate, Dr Trevor Bedford, an expert on the virus at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, wrote on Twitter that each day of protests would result in about 3,000 new infections.
Over several weeks, as each infectious person infected just under one other person on average – the current US transmission rate – those infections would in turn lead to 15,000 to 50,000 more cases, and 50 to 500 eventual deaths.
Given the racial disparities so far in the pandemic, he noted, those deaths will be disproportionately among black people. “Societal benefit of continued protests must be weighed against substantial potential impacts to health,” he wrote.
Professor Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agreed that those projections were reasonable, and said in an e-mail that Dr Bedford had done “a service” by making an approximate estimate with explicit assumptions.
But he also noted that if states where the virus was still spreading managed to rein it in, that would “massively overshadow the effects of the protests”.
About 20,000 new cases are being identified across the country on most days, and about 1,000 new deaths are announced. If all communities were performing enough tests and contact tracing to bring down those numbers, fewer of those acquiring infections at protests would infect others.
In response, other scientists voiced concern that Dr Bedford’s posts would “give fodder to those opposing civil rights”.
Many epidemiologists have noted in recent days that the country’s entrenched racial inequalities themselves translate into disproportionate early deaths and illness among African-Americans, with black Americans dying at about twice the rate of white Americans from the coronavirus.
A group of more than 1,000 people working in health and medicine signed a letter recently that said protests were, in fact, vital to public health.
“Racism and police violence are major threats to public health in this country, and protest is one of the only options available to people who have been systematically disenfranchised,” said Dr Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
Because it can take up to two weeks for a newly infected person to show symptoms, health experts expect that any uptick in cases will begin to surface this week.
Demonstrators in several places have already contracted the virus, including in Lawrence, Kansas, where someone who attended a protest two weekends ago tested positive on Friday. In Athens, Georgia, a county commissioner who attended a protest said she had tested positive. And in Oklahoma, a college football player who participated in a demonstration revealed he later tested positive for the virus.
Politicians and public health officials have urged demonstrators to wear face coverings and to maintain social distancing. In some places, including Atlanta, Illinois, Los Angeles and Minnesota, officials have also urged protesters to seek coronavirus tests.
“If I get infected fighting for justice, my soul can sit with that,” said Ms Sara Semi, 27, a protester in Minneapolis who wears a mask with a filter and carries cans of disinfectant spray. “Yes, corona is happening. It’s real, it’s deadly. But racism kills way more lives.”