Epidemiologist on what protests mean for possible spike in COVID-19 infections

Public health officials worry that the spread of coronavirus could get worse because of recent protests.

“There’s a lot of risk at these gatherings becoming super spreader events — events where a great amount of transmission of the COVID-19 virus is happening,” says Barbara Ferrer, director of LA County’s Department of Public Health.

Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiology professor at UC San Francisco, is encouraged to see most protesters wearing masks. He says the masks mitigate a lot of risk, and studies show people are less likely to contract the virus outside than inside.

“On the other hand, people are squashed close together. There’s a lot of chanting and yelling … and that increases the amount of breath that’s exhaled,” he says. 

Tear gas and pepper spray are also problematic. They irritate eyes and lungs, which results in coughing and rubbing your eyes, which could lead to transmitting or contracting the virus.

Meanwhile, some county testing sites are closed due to safety concerns and curfew orders.

“To the extent that we’re unable to diagnose people who may be walking around infectious, that’s a problem,” he says.

Rutherford suggests people should get tested if they’ve been at a protest without a mask, were caught up in a crowd filled with people not wearing masks, or were in an area where tear gas or pepper spray was used.