Maybe Protests and Outdoor Crowds Won’t Significantly Spread the Coronavirus after All

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Demonstrators raise their fists as they take a knee for 8 minutes 46 seconds, the length of time George Floyd was held down with a knee on his neck by a Minneapolis police officer, during a protest against racial inequality in Boston, Mass., June 7, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Way back on February 27, President Trump discussed the coronavirus and said, “It’s going to disappear.  One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.  And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better.  It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

The virus has not disappeared yet. After more than 116,000 deaths, the United States is still finding about 20,000 new cases per day, and about 900 Americans are dying of the virus each day.

But some viral outbreaks in the past have died out surprisingly quickly, including the first SARS virus. The World Health Organization a global alert for a severe form of pneumonia of unknown origin in persons from China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong in March 2003, the virus peaked by May, no cases of person-to-person transmission were reported after June, and by July, the World Health Organization declared the threat had passed.

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Epidemiologists generally credit “case detection, isolation, quarantine, along with contact tracing, broke the chain of transmission.” But many health researchers were surprised at just how quickly and thoroughly SARS disappeared. It is unlikely that random mutation would lead to a virus becoming much less virulent, much less contagious, or both.

Something surprising is going on with the current coronavirus outbreak as well. As noted earlier this week, the May 23 Lake of the Ozarks crowded pool gathering did not, as far as local health authorities can tell, lead to a new outbreak. As of this morning, there is one confirmed case of one infected resident infecting another. Videos of the gathering showed lots of people, not wearing masks, standing close together — precisely the situation that epidemiologists worried about the most. And yet, it appears the virus didn’t spread much at that event.

We are now 14 days past May 29. Four days after George Floyd’s death, protests had spread to many cities in the United States, with quite a few demonstrators gathering in crowds and not practicing social distancing. (Many, but not all, wore masks.) So far, a handful of protesters, police officers, and National Guardsmen at the protesters have tested positive, but we haven’t seen an overwhelming wave of infections. (Or at least a wave of symptomatic infections. As noted below, “the overall rate of asymptomatic infection is likely at least 30 percent and could be as high as 40 percent to 45 percent.”)

Maybe it’s just luck, or the fact that these gatherings are outdoors, or the heat, or that a sufficient number of protesters are wearing masks. And we could still see a significant surge of reported cases among protesters and police and National Guardsmen in the coming days; the protests, demonstrations, marches and violence continued well past May 29.

But one could argue that if there was a significant spreading event at a protest before June 7, we would have seen some signs of it by now. “The median incubation period from infection with SARS-CoV-2 to onset of symptoms is approximately 5 days, and 97.5 percent of symptomatic people infected with SARS-CoV-2 will exhibit symptoms by 11.5 days.”

Public-health authorities still want those who participated in protests to get themselves tested. Protesters just can’t know for certain who around them might have the virus, whether their mask is sufficiently protective, or whether the shouting or singing by protesters will increase the odds of transmission.

But so far, it does not appear that the early protests significantly spread the coronavirus — or if protesters did catch the coronavirus, most of them are asymptomatic and do not even realize they have it.


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