Joining crowds of Denver protesters brings risk of COVID-19 exposure. Here’s how to protect yourself — and when to get tested.
The demonstrations in downtown Denver over the death of George Floyd have the potential to increase coronavirus infections, although public health experts said Monday that it’s still too soon to know how big of a spike in cases Colorado could see.
Mayor Micheal Hancock over the weekend urged demonstrators — even those without symptoms — to get tested for the coronavirus at the Pepsi Center, where the city has a free, drive-up testing site.
People who want to be tested must first register online or by calling 311, and be prepared to get tested within 24 hours.
While the demonstrations have taken place outside, large crowds have gathered and authorities have deployed tear gas and fired pepper balls — all of which has the ability to increase the risk of protesters’ exposure during a respiratory pandemic.
“The use of any agent that’s going to generate a lot of coughing among people that are in dense group settings, when people are in close proximity, that’s absolutely going to elevate risks considerably,” said Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“These activities are important to be engaged in,” Mays said of the protests, which entered their fifth night in downtown Denver on Monday. He added, “It’s really unfortunate because both of the problems we are dealing with are rooted in discrimination and inequality.”
Demonstrators have taken to the streets of Denver and cities across the nation to protest systematic racism following the death of Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minnesota after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The pandemic also has highlighted existing racial inequalities as black Coloradans are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately high rate.
The protests come as Colorado has started to reopen businesses, restaurants and parks. And there are signs that social distancing polices implemented early on in the outbreak have slowed the spread of the novel coronavirus, with deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 declining in recent weeks.
These are good signs for those turning out to the protests, said Dr. Connie Savor Price, chief medical officer at Denver Health.
“Of the people who are gathering together, fewer of them are likely to be infected based on the data that we have from our city and state,” she said, adding, “We’ll know more about the impact of these protests in the coming days.”
Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, estimates that one in every 300 Coloradans could be carrying the coronavirus, and she said it is difficult to trace who might have stood near an infected person in a large crowd.
“That obviously is challenging to do in an environment where you don’t know who you’ve had contact with,” Herlihy said.
The new coronavirus mostly spreads via droplets when someone shouts, chants, sneezes or coughs, and people are most at risk when they are within 3 to 6 feet of an infected person, including carriers of the virus who don’t have symptoms, said Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director of infection control and prevention at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
“We don’t really have a good sense of what that risk is,” she said, adding, “It depends on the moment because if they’re actively walking and moving there’s less likely risk of exposure.”
Medical and public health experts said attendees should monitor themselves for symptoms, which can appear between two and 14 days after exposure, and include fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, and nausea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Any large gathering of people in tight proximity to each other can facilitate the spread of COVID-19, so we are asking anyone who believes they may have been exposed (whether at a protest or otherwise) to take advantage of the free COVID-19 testing available at the Pepsi Center,” said Laura Swartz, spokeswoman for the city’s joint information center, in an email.
She said the risk of exposure for the coronavirus at the protests is “really high,” and that the city will not be asking those who get tested if they’ve attended a protest.
To stay safe during a protest and limit transmission of COVID-19, attendees should wear a mask and goggles, and should sanitize their hands after touching anything communal and before touching their face. Protesters should also limit how close they are to others — standing six feet apart is possible at the demonstrations — and practice social distancing during other times, according to medical and public health experts.
Public health experts also suggested finding ways that demonstrations can be held so that the risk of exposure is reduced for those pushing for social changes.
“Silent protests are probably safer,” said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician and biosecurity fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Denver Post staff writer Meg Wingerter contributed to this report.
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