Protests prompting concern about new outbreaks of coronavirus

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MADISON – Hundreds of people gathered together, running into each other, coughing and sneezing.

It’s a scene playing out in cities across Wisconsin in recent days as groups demonstrate in the wake of the death of George Floyd, marching together by the hundreds or scrambling to avoid tear gas and pepper spray being deployed by police.

The protests and the unrest that have split off from the peaceful demonstrations come at a time when the spread of a deadly virus has waned but not disappeared — prompting concerns of new outbreaks from some infectious disease experts.

“I’m very, very concerned and troubled by the potential for a spike,” Medical College of Wisconsin CEO John Raymond said Tuesday in a web-based event hosted by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Business Association. 

Coronavirus is most easily spread when people are talking — or chanting — and through a cough or sneeze, which tear gas and pepper spray can cause. 

Raymond urged anyone participating in a protest to wear a mask, which can significantly reduce the rate of transmission. Masks are difficult to wear in protest situations, however, when protesters are trying to breathe through chemical agents. 

Gov. Tony Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a recent interview he’s “extraordinarily concerned.”

“The good news is that I do see a fair amount of masks out there, but the bad news is as everybody knows this is highly charged times and people are very concerned about issues that are impacted by institutional racism, and so they may they not be talking like you and I are talking. They’re shouting,” Evers said. 

Evers said outbreaks have occurred in meatpacking plants because people are close together and have to shout over loud machines. 

“Those are the exact things that are happening in this circumstance,” he said about the protests. “We’ll find out in a few weeks how that plays out.”

RELATED: Protests defy coronavirus guidelines, but health experts say engagement is ‘essential.’ Here’s how protesters and police can reduce risk.

Jim Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute, said the good news is that being outdoors decreases the risk of transmission. 

“However, since the primary transmission is from human to human, individuals in close quarters with little movement do have increased opportunity for higher ‘quality’ contact and subsequent infection,” he said in an email. “Obviously it depends on how many infected people there are in the group, and how careful individuals are about their own hygiene.”

Conway said he rode his bike to Monday’s protest on John Nolen Drive in Madison to observe the crowd for about 30 minutes from a safe distance. He said about 60% of the hundreds in the group were wearing masks and most were keeping some distance from each other.

“It was sunny and breezy, and so in that setting, I’d surmise that the risk was fairly low,” he said.

But in protest situations, like the scene on State Street in Madison on Saturday, with hundreds of people crammed together at some points and coughing, the risk goes up. 

“It’s really disappointing to hear that the police in Madison took actions that exacerbated the risk of transmission at the protest, like pushing people together into crowded spaces, forming riot lines, and using chemicals that make people cough and spread more droplets,” said Malia Jones, a social epidemiologist and assistant scientist in health geography at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I personally saw a lot of people trying to protest while engaging in harm reduction strategies like wearing masks and trying to stay further apart,” she said in an email. “I wish those actions had been supported by the police force, rather than undermined.” 

Jones said she hopes the spread of the virus isn’t viewed as a deterrent to protest. 

“I hope that protesters and police and the national guard can all contribute to making protests happen safely from a virus transmission perspective (and a violence perspective),” she said. “In fact that is one of the main points of the protests, isn’t it? Black people are less safe than I am as a white person — from violence and the virus. These two things have the same root cause: structural racism in the United States.” 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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