Coronavirus News: Protests could spark uptick in COVID-19 cases, health experts warn

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Doctors are warning about an uptick in coronavirus cases following several days of protests across the nation in response to the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

According to disease trackers, protests are "super spreading events" because they involve large crowds of people, often unable to socially distance, who also don't know each other, making alerting participants about possible exposure to COVID-19 difficult.

While an average person sick with coronavirus infects two to three people, a sick individual at a large gathering, such as a protest, can infect many more people, according to Johns Hopkins University.

"When you think about protesting, there is yelling, screaming, tear gas, smoke, and coughing. This is an opportunity for COVID-19 to spread," said Dr. Thomas Hopkins who specializes in internal medicine. "COVID-19 is an opportunistic killer, and the tragedy is lighting that powder keg."

Already COVID-19 has sickened African Americans and Latinos at a higher rate and Dr. Hopkins worries the recent protests will only increase the death rates among minority communities.

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"The very people who are protesting are the people who are dying of COVID-19 in inner cities," Hopkins said.

Both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo implored protesters to consider staying home and protesting on platforms that don't involve large crowds.

"I am very worried about the pandemic. Everyone needs to think about," de Blasio said. "You have made your point. It's time to stay home."

"We don't even know the consequence of the COVID virus of those mass gatherings," Cuomo said.

Based on information from Johns Hopkins University about how coronavirus spreads, an individual exposed to COVID-19 during Friday's protest could begin showing symptoms within two to 14 days, but would usually begin feeling sick five days after exposure and could be contagious up to two days before that.

In other words, an individual who contracted COVID-19 during Friday's protest would likely be contagious as early as Monday and would likely start showing symptoms by Wednesday.

"Everyone has to understand what your personal responsibility is in this," Hopkins said.

Hopkins added that he understands the outrage. He called racism a disease that should get the same attention beating Coronavirus has received.

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"That's the problem here, and we have to get that. We need to pour in all those efforts, where we came together for COVID-19, and understand that humanity, and humility, and everyone being on the same page was the solution. It has to be the same with racism. We have to treat racism just like we do a disease. We need a cure for racism and it has happen to now."

Hopkins cautioned that while the nation's leaders must address the decades-old systemic injustices that have sparked protests yet again, he worries protesting now, before the U.S. fully climbs out of this pandemic, will ultimately cost the very communities seeking justice more lives lost to COVID-19.

"When you go to protest and when you go home you are placing your friends and family at risk and you didn't give them a choice," Hopkins said. "There are other ways to protest. You can stay home."

The New York City Health Department has asked protesters to wear masks, practice social distancing, and use noise makers instead of shouting to reduce the spread of bodily fluids.

The city is also inviting anyone who has participated in a protest to come in for a coronavirus test.

You can find a list of testing locations here.

Hopkins also recommended individuals make a plan to quarantine or stay somewhere else following participation in a protest to avoid exposing family and friends who could be at a higher risk for contracting the virus.

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