We’ve known for a long time that racism is a deeply ingrained public health issue resulting in real, tangible health disparities. For people of color, racism results in unequal access to quality education, healthy food, livable wages, affordable housing, and medical care. We also know very well that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting our communities of color. Studies show that Black, Latinx, and Native American patients are much more likely to get infected and die from COVID-19 than whites.
Research also shows that Black, Native American, and Latino men are far more likely than whites to be killed by police, the murder of George Floyd being a vivid and unarguable example. How can we not pay attention, listen, and effect change? As people stand together and raise their voices, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means we need to do so safely.
I’ve worked on the COVID-19 wards, and I’ve seen how contagious this virus can be and what these deaths look like. It takes five to seven days to show symptoms. Seven to 10 days after that, people can get sicker and show up at the hospital. We saw this in our hospital in April, with a bump in cases two weeks after the Easter weekend. Many of us in the medical field were worried that if protesters didn’t take precautions when exercising their First Amendment right to protest, people would get sick in large numbers, likely disproportionately affecting Black, Native American, and Latinx people.
However, we now have data showing that the COVID-19 infection rate among protesters has been remarkably low: 2.5% here in Massachusetts, with our overall infection rate continuing to decline. This mirrors the nationwide trend among protesters, and here’s why: protests have been held outdoors, and for the most part people have been wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
I’ve been caring for patients with presumed or confirmed COVID-19 since mid-March, and so far I haven’t had any symptoms of infection. On the wards, we were at least four clinicians in the hospital work room, for hours. The nurses’ station and the hallways were constantly bustling. But we all wear masks 100% of the time, avoid close contact, and obsessively sanitize our hands. These are basic approaches, but they work.
Here’s what you need to know and do
A recent study of contact tracing for new infections showed that most transmissions occurred between people interacting indoors for 15 minutes or more. Analysis of 28 COVID-19 “superspreading events” around the globe revealed commonalities: all were indoors, and involved people without masks talking face-to-face, singing, or sharing a meal.
For these reasons, being outdoors in open spaces is considered lower risk. Gathering outdoors with disciplined social distancing would be good for all of us, for so many reasons beyond protesting. Studies have shown that virus-laden droplets can travel six feet, so wearing masks and maintaining that distance is critical.
So: we’ll all need to wear masks when we’re out, whether protesting or picnicking, going to the pharmacy or the grocery store — that is, all the time. It’s not hard. Homemade cloth masks made of just a single layer of t-shirt cotton can help prevent microscopic droplets full of virus from flying out of someone’s mouth and into your face (which is the main way people get infected). So if you’re carrying the virus and don’t know it, you won’t infect someone else. And the mask protects you as well. Don’t forget hand hygiene: 30 seconds of alcohol-based hand sanitizer inactivates the virus. Wash your hands with soap and water when you get home.
Following these basic measures as much as possible when protesting can help reduce the risk for COVID-19.
Harvard Health Publishing’s Coronavirus Resource Center has more information on COVID-19.