Protests did not spread COVID-19, but why?

Calgary Herald - - CANADA - STU­ART THOM­SON sx­thom­son@post­media.com Twit­ter: stu­ar­tx­thom­son

When mil­lions of peo­ple streamed into the streets around the world to protest the mur­der of Ge­orge Floyd at the hands of a Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer, it gave a sink­ing feel­ing to public health of­fi­cials, whether or not they sup­ported the cause be­hind the de­mon­stra­tions.

“It’s a per­fect setup for fur­ther spread of the virus,” said An­thony Fauci, direc­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases in the United States, in early June. “I get very con­cerned, as do my col­leagues in public health, when they see th­ese kinds of crowds. There cer­tainly is a risk. I can say that with con­fi­dence.”

But it never came to pass. Hun­dreds of cities saw protests in North Amer­ica ear­lier in the month, but it’s hard to trace even a sin­gle out­break to the ral­lies. Vera Etches, Ot­tawa’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health, con­firmed this week that not even a sin­gle new in­fec­tion could be at­trib­uted to the re­cent de­mon­stra­tion in the city.

Some ex­perts have spec­u­lated that out­door trans­mis­sion is so rare with COVID-19 that even a highly risky event such as a protest is rel­a­tively safe, es­pe­cially com­pared to large events held in­doors.

The first study into the phe­nom­e­non ar­gues that an­other fac­tor could be im­por­tant: the protests never turned into su­per-spreader events be­cause they en­cour­aged ev­ery­one else in the city to stay home. The ef­fect was durable, of­ten as long as a week, which is longer than the aver­age in­cu­ba­tion time of the novel coro­n­avirus. The net ef­fect of the protests was that, on aver­age, more peo­ple stayed home dur­ing the week they were held than the pre­vi­ous week, even ac­count­ing for all the peo­ple who went out to protest.

The protests them­selves seem to be the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to spread a virus. It’s dif­fi­cult to so­cially dis­tance, peo­ple are chant­ing and singing and, in some cities, po­lice of­fi­cers de­ployed tear gas, which in­duces cough­ing fits. All those ac­tiv­i­ties help spread the droplets that trans­mit the virus.

The re­searchers, who re­leased the study at the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search in the United States this week, said it’s pos­si­ble that the de­mon­stra­tions caused an uptick of in­fec­tions among peo­ple who at­tended but that it doesn’t seem to have spread into the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

The re­searchers used cell­phone data to track peo­ple’s be­hav­iour, so they can only guess as to why peo­ple stayed home dur­ing the protests.

It could be an ef­fect of traf­fic con­ges­tion caused by marches spilling into the streets, or the fact that many busi­nesses closed, caus­ing em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers to stay home.

It could also be that peo­ple were con­cerned about con­tract­ing COVID-19 af­ter me­dia re­ports about the po­ten­tial for spread of the virus.

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