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Health Officials Worry Mass Protests Could Ignite Coronavirus Surge


So I was walking around a protest outside the White House yesterday. Thousands of people were there. Many, if not most of them, wore masks but social distancing, 6 feet apart, not so much. Public health experts worry about spreading coronavirus through protests. And as the nation is told to continue practicing social distancing, some experts also say messages from the Trump administration may undermine their efforts. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Hi there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, could protests across the country affect the spread of the coronavirus?

AUBREY: Well, it's too soon to say. But when you have groups of people concentrated together, as we saw this weekend, you have some of the key ingredients for transmission, mainly prolonged, close contact. And the images of protesters shoulder to shoulder, as you say some with masks, which is good, some not, this certainly raises concerns. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke on NBC about it.


MURIEL BOWSER: I'm concerned that we had mass gatherings in our streets when we just lifted a stay-at-home order and what that could mean for spikes in our coronavirus cases later. In fact, I'm so concerned about it that I'm urging everybody to consider their exposure, if they need to isolate from their family members when they go home and if they need to be tested.

AUBREY: There was also disruption of COVID testing in Los Angeles. They announced a temporary closure of local testing centers over the weekend due to the unrest, so a lot of concern given the close contact, the lack of social distancing.

INSKEEP: Can people who choose to protest feel a little more safe because they are outdoors when they're protesting?

AUBREY: Yes. Being outdoors reduces the risk. It's clear that confined, indoor environments are more dangerous. But, you know, in recent weeks, there have been outbreaks linked to places we may not expect. It's not just meat processing plants or hospitals. In Arkansas, there are cases linked to a high school pool party in the town of Paragould. Public health officials there tell me contact tracing is likely ongoing. So they don't know the total number of cases, but it's a reminder that an outbreak can happen anywhere where people are in close, crowded spaces.

I spoke to Leaf Van Boven. He's a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. And he points out that when you don't know personally anyone infected with the virus, it may be harder to stay vigilant because the threat just seems distant, so far off.

LEAF VAN BOVEN: It's other cities. It's other kinds of workers. It's other ethnicities. And it's hard to be compelled by something that's totally invisible. And, of course, one of the greatest challenges is that if we were to experience the spread of COVID in our community, it would take a couple of weeks to show up, so we wouldn't know right away. And by the time we realize that something has gone wrong, it will very much be too late.

AUBREY: The virus will be spreading. So staying vigilant on social distancing, wearing a mask in public spaces, these are both important. And he says, if there were strong leadership promoting these messages in a consistent, science-backed way, that would be helpful.

INSKEEP: Allison, I'm glad you mention science because when it comes to masks, there is science, but there's also politics. There are people who are upset about being asked to wear masks, who are refusing to do it for political reasons or maybe who just aren't very comfortable putting them on. What is the evidence?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, it's become clear there's a fair amount of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic spread of this virus. And masking helps prevent the release of the virus. So it's beneficial. There are multiple studies to back this up - new studies. Yet, to this point about needing strong leadership to reinforce this, I spoke to former CDC Director Tom Frieden. He says people may get mixed messages. He points to the day that the CDC face covering or mask guidance was announced at the White House.

TOM FRIEDEN: The CDC recommended that everyone wear masks in certain circumstances. At the same press conference, the president said he wasn't going to wear a mask. So this really does make our response less effective. It makes it more likely that we'll have more spread of disease.

AUBREY: Because some people may be less likely to comply. I mean, other examples in play now of this, the president has promoted the reopening of churches with the administration removing warnings about the risks of choirs. And the president has made it known that he'd like a crowd when he speaks at the Republican convention later this summer. Yet, per the CDC guidance, we should not be gathering in crowds. And we should continue social distancing.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about traveling around this summer. There are people who may want to go to that Republican convention. There are people who still have their jobs who are thinking about vacations. There are people like my brother, who's asking, can I travel for work? Is air travel considered safe at this point?

AUBREY: Right, we're all asking these questions. I would say the biggest challenge of air travel is that you can't control the factors that matter most in terms of reducing your risk. I mean, at the airport, in security lines, on the jetway as you're boarding and on the plane, you can't control who is next to you, how close they are to you, if they're wearing a mask. And when it comes to this prolonged periods in cramped, crowded spaces, there's a risk. Now, airlines are doing a good job of circulating the air, filtering the air with HEPA filters. But this might not be enough. I spoke to Judith Guzman-Cottrill. She's an infectious disease physician at Oregon Health and Science University and a consultant to her state's health department.

JUDITH GUZMAN-COTTRILL: I'll tell you right now that I would not get on an airplane right now, unless there was a true, urgent, dire reason to. I've looked at many of the air carriers to see what they're trying to do to minimize risk. And many of them have said we will try to keep the middle seat open. But trying to keep that middle seat unoccupied and saying that we will definitely make sure that they're all blocked are two different things.

AUBREY: And she says if you fly, you may have to think about the people you're visiting. If it's Grandma and Grandpa, it could be risky. So maybe, Steve, best of this summer to take an epic road trip.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks. I really appreciate your advice.

AUBREY: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.