A wave of mass protests across the U.S. in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police could trigger coronavirus outbreaks and flare ups, infectious disease experts told the Herald on Sunday.

Large gatherings with people close to one another for a long time — like protests this weekend in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and other major cities — are “opportunities for the virus to spread,” said William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert.

“I’m concerned about a spike here and there in the next two to three weeks as a consequence of these demonstrations,” he said.

These mass gatherings with multiple points of contact can lead to chains of transmission, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

“Anytime people are socially interacting, the virus has an opportunity to transmit,” he said. “There’s also a lot of yelling and shouting during these events, so there are more droplets from people. There’s a concern that can lead to an increase in case transmission.”

Several riots have taken place in the last few days, during which people are running around and exhaling more frequently, Schaffner noted. That can make people more susceptible to catching the virus, he said.

“I’m concerned even more because a lot of the participants in the demonstrations have been people of color, and they have suffered disproportionately from COVID,” Schaffner said. “This virus may get brought home to family and friends in communities of people of color, and I’m concerned about that. We’ll see if that turns out to be true or not.”

Many protesters have been wearing masks, which helps limit the spread, he said. The risk of transmission is also lower outside, he said.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh on Sunday tweeted a thread about the protests. He tweeted, “Over the last three months, we have come together in powerful ways. We’ve worked together to protect one another from a deadly virus. The risk of the virus is still here. Please wear a face covering and wash your hands to keep yourself and your loved ones at home safe.”

“Your constitutional right to make your voice heard must be respected and protected,” Walsh tweeted. “We want to keep you safe. The City of Boston will be there today to give you a face covering if you don’t have one.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement, “The governor was outraged by George Floyd’s death, and encourages everyone gathering today to do so peacefully and safely.”

A Massachusetts State Police spokesman said in a statement, “We urge protesters to demonstrate peacefully and to be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others. Troopers have been wearing masks and will continue to do so during any protest deployments.”


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