Officials fear coughing, shouting at protests could exacerbate COVID-19 spread

Parades during the 1918 pandemic caused major outbreaks.

Although it's still an unknown, protests around the state and country leading to outbreaks of COVID-19 is a possibility. Minnesota health officials say it could take up to three weeks to know if the massive crowds protesting police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis will have resulted in widespread infection, but the concern has arose. 

One of the concerns is that tear gas and pepper spray used on protesters by law enforcement could increase the risk of virus spread due to masses of people coughing. More here, courtesy of the University of Minnesota's Center For Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP):

"Health experts warned that tear gas and pepper spray both cause coughing, eye watering, and respiratory secretions, and that yelling and chanting—even though conducted outside—could help spread the virus among aerosolized droplets. They also cautioned that cities such as Philadelphia and Detroit, which held large parades during the 1918 influenza pandemic, saw a huge spike in activity within days of the event."

Similarly, some experts have hypothesized that many lives were saved because the 49ers didn't win the Super Bowl in February, which meant hundreds of thousands of fans didn't gather in San Francisco for a championship parade when the virus was first impacting the West Coast.

According to the Star Tribune's Shannon Prather, the concern is shared by Ramsey County Public Health Director Kathy Hedin. 

The unease is shared across the country, with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti expressing worry that protests involving thousands of people in close contact for long periods of time could become super-spreader events. 

On a media briefing conference call Monday, state health leaders told Minnesota media that one limiting factor for the spread of the coronavirus is that the protests are outdoors, though simply being outside doesn't stop the virus. An expert on pandemics told the New York Times that being outside might not matter at all protest marches. 

“Yes, the protests are outside, but they are all really close to each other, and in those cases, being outside doesn’t protect you nearly as much,” Dr. Howard Markel said. “Public gatherings are public gatherings — it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting or cheering. That’s one reason we’re not having large baseball games and may not have college football this fall.”

Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), said Monday that everyone who attended a protest should soon go in for a COVID-19 test. 

Even those who went to the protests and are asymptomatic will be encouraged to go in for a test. You can find a testing location near you right here.

"People won't be showing signs of disease right away, but we definitely are going to be encouraging people who participated to consider getting tested and reaching out to their healthcare provider," said Ehresmann. 

The incubation period for COVID-19 is 2-14 days, with the onset of symptoms most common within a range of 5-7 days. 

Next Up