Public health officials said they won’t know for weeks whether this weekend’s mass protests caused a spike in coronavirus cases in Chicago and qualify as a so-called “super-spread” event, where one infected person sets off a chain reaction infecting many more. Super-spread events are associated with explosive growth early on in an outbreak, according to a study by the CDC.
Experts said they are encouraged by the number of people who wore masks, and the fact that protests took place outdoors. But the lack of social distancing is cause of concern. Experts urged protesters and others who were out this weekend to self-quarantine for 14 days to avoid spreading the virus.
Here’s what else health officials are saying as the city takes stock of this weekend’s events:
“The virus does not care what else is going on”
Chicago’s top health official is warning the results of the protests and other social gatherings this weekend could push the city back just as it was starting to see progress.
Others said it’s hard to imagine that this weekend’s protests, coupled with Memorial Day weekend last week, won’t lead to an uptick in cases.
“COVID-19 is caused by a virus, and that virus does not care what else is going on in the city,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, who leads the Chicago Department of Public Health. “COVID-19 still takes every opportunity it can to spread.”
At a press conference Monday morning, Arwady added the city is still seeing hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 a day, and that those cases pop up particularly “in settings where people are unable to keep a six-foot distance or unable to wear the face coverings,” making this weekend’s protests, where huge crowds were unable to social distance, concerning.
COVID-19 is spread from someone’s mouth or nose through particles in the air. If two people are wearing a mask, the risk of transmission is reduced by over 90%, said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine.
“But not all masks are completely impervious to particles going in and out, and some people might not be wearing their mask correctly at all times, so there’s risk there,” she said.
Arwady is urging protesters to self-quarantine for 14 days, especially if they weren’t wearing a mask, if they believe they were exposed to someone who’s tested positive, or if they start to develop symptoms.
“We will see that person in an emergency department next month”
People who may have been infected at the protest won’t start to develop symptoms for at least three days after exposure, according to Carmen Vergara, a nurse and COO at Esperanza Health.
“If anybody who was at the protest [Sunday] was tested [Monday], most likely we would get some false negatives, because it’s too soon to test,” she said. In addition to a two-week self-quarantine, she suggests they get tested between 3 and 10 days of potential exposure, or as soon as they develop symptoms.
Vergara said performing contact tracing for protesters will be nearly impossible, but she expects the city of Chicago, as others did across the country, to make mass announcements in the coming weeks warning protesters of areas and times they may have been exposed to COVID.
“Other cities have said ‘If you were in X location, at X time, you may have been exposed and you should get tested,” she said. “That’s something the city could do.”
But experts reiterated quarantining is the most important step right now, to avoid setting off a chain reaction that could be felt weeks from now.
“There could be individuals that were infected and those individuals could expose others, who could expose others,” said David Ernesto Munar, CEO of Howard Brown Health. “And, then, the individual that gets very sick — maybe they have underlying conditions or may be elderly — we will see that person in an emergency department next month.”
Testing capacity drops at community centers
Health centers that have provided testing to under-served communities hit hardest by the virus are closed temporarily as a precaution, meaning testing capacity could drop at a time when more people need it.
“We were worried about our staff getting to work safely,” Dan Fulwiler, CEO of Esperanza Health Centers. “And that of course is a problem because it limits access to testing for people who are sick and really need testing.”
But Fulwiler expects Esperanza to reopen Tuesday as long as property damage continues to simmer, which could be just in time to start testing protesters who fear they’ve been exposed.
“One of the things we were certainly concerned about is that when they closed off downtown yesterday, it seemed like a lot of violence and looting really came to the neighborhoods,” Fulwiler said. “And that of course, created a problem for us. Especially because we’ve been hearing from staff that there seem to be less police officers and attention to what’s happening in the neighborhoods because police are so occupied with downtown.”
Howard Brown Health, which has health centers across the city, has also closed its testing sites over concerns about looting and staff safety, but also anticipates reopening early this week.
The state of Illinois has also shut down its state-run community testing sites Monday.
“I don’t know what is right and what is wrong”
Despite concerns, doctors and health officials expressed support for this weekend’s protests, even though massive crowds could worsen the pandemic they’re fighting.
“I think first and foremost, we have to recognize and acknowledge that injustice, and what the protests represented in the death of not only George Floyd, but many other black Americans, is a public health emergency,” said Khan, the epidemiologist at Northwestern.
“I don’t know what is right and what is wrong at this point when there is so much concern about voices not being heard.”
Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.