Public health officials concerned over potential virus spread at protests
Public health officials are concerned this past weekend’s protests against police brutality and racial injustice could lead to increased spread of the virus locally. Meanwhile, some see the virus’ disparate impacts as one factor that led to the protests.
At protests in Wilmington and Dover this weekend, most demonstrators wore masks — but few kept the 6-foot distance from others recommended to reduce spread of the coronavirus.
“Having protests in the midst of a pandemic presents a unique set of challenges,” said Department of Health and Social Services Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker.
Odom Walker says she is concerned these protests may prove to be hotspots of transmission for the virus. She encourages participants to get tested.
“Those who may have participated in a protest should act as if they may have been exposed and may have COVID-19,” she said. “That means being really cautious about who you’re around, who else may have been exposed, who could be vulnerable in your family or your neighborhood.”
Odom Walker does not discourage protesting — but says to do so outside, wear a mask and practice social distancing. She calls the intersection of institutional racism and a pandemic “just heart-breaking.”
“Many of the protests and many of the expressions were peaceful. People were courageous. They were responsible,” she said. “They are inspiring a nationwide effort to make sure we are communicating concerns, and for that we must continue to have the utmost respect for that desire to get out the message.”
“It is unacceptable to say that we should quiet those voices,” she added. “But we also know that in the midst of a pandemic, it’s critically important that we think of others’ safety and their safety.”
Walker notes there have already been racial disparities in the virus’s spread, with black and brown Delawareans hit harder than whites.
Rev. Lawrence Livingston of Mother Africa Union Church in Wilmington sees the virus and its exposure of racial inequities as one factor that led to the protests.
“It’s not just George Floyd,” he said. “That might have been the spark that got the fire going, no pun intended. But this is a convergence of issues.”
State public health director Dr. Karyl Rattay says it is not safe to sing or yell around others—especially without a face covering. She says in that case to stay at least 13 feet away from others.
“Just breathing and speaking can transmit small droplets,” she said. “More droplets are produced and spread and can go further ”
State officials plan to highlight testing events already planned for the City of Wilmington in the coming days.
“What we will have to do is make sure we’re getting more information out about the testing locations in Wilmington,” said Odom Walker. “We’ve alway had a focus on making sure that people have had access to testing locations in Wilmington and in our underserved and minority communities, but those that are being stood up in low-income and minority communities this week will be highlighted as part of our communications.”