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Experts Fear Mass Protests May Cause New Coronavirus Outbreaks Around The U.S.


The United States has entered a dangerous new phase in the fight against the coronavirus. The country is reopening even though the virus is still spreading. And now with civil unrest intensifying, masses of people are taking to the streets. Here is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein to talk about this.

Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to consider the protests purely from a health point of view for a second. What is the risk that these demonstrations and marches spark significant new outbreaks of the virus?

STEIN: You know, the protests are outdoors. And many of the protesters are wearing masks and seem to be trying, at least, to sometimes practice social distancing. That helps a lot. But, you know, mass gatherings are inherently dangerous situations. You know, and here in this situation, people are chanting. Tear gas is being fired. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: I do worry that a few weeks down the road, we will see increase in cases and potentially some outbreaks and really harm the communities that have been the subject of both racial violence and have been so disproportionately impacted by this virus.

STEIN: And, you know, Jha says this comes at a particularly precarious time in this country.

JHA: We're really in a very difficult time. We're in the middle of a pandemic, at one of the worst public health moments in a century. The country is opening up. And then on top of that, you have civil unrest from long-standing racial injustices. Put it all together, and it's a very perilous moment for our nation.

KELLY: It does indeed feel like a very perilous moment. Rob, would you take a minute and just get us up to speed on where things actually stand right now with the pandemic, what direction the numbers are moving in this country?

STEIN: Oh, sure. Yeah. So, you know, big picture, things are better than they were. Overall, cases are down. Deaths are down. But we're not out of the woods yet - you know, far from it. The country just passed this grim milestone of more than 100,000 deaths, and at least 20,000 new cases and hundreds of deaths are still being reported every day. The virus is still spreading. Most people are still vulnerable. Here's Dr. Thomas Frieden. He used to run the CDC.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: This is a terrible pandemic, and it's taken a health, social and economic toll. And unfortunately, we're not done with it.

KELLY: But despite those rising case numbers overall, Rob, are there corners of the country where things are looking up?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, the situation does look better in maybe, let's say, a third of the country, places that got hit hard early and locked down hard, like the Northeast - you know, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts. Another maybe third looks OK, at least for now. But the other third looks a little worrying. Places like Chicago, Minnesota in the Midwest, California, especially LA is starting to look like a problem again, but also the Southeast - the Carolinas, Virginia, you know, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi. Caitlin Rivers at Johns Hopkins worries about places that, you know, don't have a lot of things like hospitals.

CAITLIN RIVERS: I'm starting to worry more now about rural areas. I think we will see flare-ups beginning in institutions like correctional facilities, nursing homes, maybe also around family gatherings or religious services. The outbreaks may start there and then spread into the community and gain a foothold.

STEIN: It'll probably take a week or two to see any signs of surges from the Memorial Day reopenings and now these protests. And through the spring and summer as things open up more, the virus could flare up in different places, sort of like, you know, wildfires breaking out in one place after another. And the fear is the U.S. could lose another hundred thousand lives by the end of the summer and maybe hundreds of thousands by the end of the year if the pandemic intensifies in the fall and winter.

KELLY: I mean, that sounds awful. Is there anything you can point us to that should give us hope?

STEIN: Well, honestly, Mary Louise, none of the public health experts I talked to are very optimistic, unfortunately. Here's Dr. Richard Besser. He also used to run the CDC and now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provides support to NPR.

RICHARD BESSER: We're seeing public health and public health recommendations put up as the enemy of restarting the economy, getting people back to work; a lot of people saying, you know what? I don't think this is such a big deal. And no, I don't want to wear a mask. I don't want to social distance. I just want to get back to the way things were. That's a very dangerous course.

STEIN: Now, you know, it doesn't mean all hope is lost. If the country does get serious about things we've been hearing a lot about, like finally getting enough testing, aggressively isolating sick people and quarantining...

KELLY: Right.

STEIN: ...People who might've caught the virus, there is still some hope.

KELLY: All right. Thank you for that morsel of hope.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.