As thousands of people poured into the streets around the country to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, a microscopic menace was almost certainly there too, eager to propagate and spread through the jostling and shouting crowds that gathered for hours on end, day after day.
It’s a scenario that would seemingly give health officials trying to quell the worst pandemic in a century heartburn and distress. But in fact, a sizable contingent of medical professionals across the country have defended — and even encouraged — the enormous gatherings as a vital response to systemic racial disparities and police brutality in America.
Dr. Mark Shrime, a surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School who founded the Center for Global Surgery Evaluations, told The Denver Post that racism is a pandemic in its own right.
“The role of professionals in medicine and public health is to focus on health and equity, in all its forms,” he said. “The world currently grapples with two pandemics: that of COVID-19 and that of structural racism. Both pandemics are lethal, and both disproportionately affect black Americans.
“To pretend that public health professionals are allowed to deal with one and not the other is misguided. It is to claim, incorrectly, that only one has an impact on health.”
A group of nearly 1,300 health professionals from across the country — including a handful from Colorado — recently signed an open letter that praised the protesters of the last couple of weeks for calling attention “to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy.” The protests began as a response to the death of Floyd, a black man, after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and have grown to include the deaths of other black people at police hands around the country.
“… We do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” the letter states. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”
The letter said the same considerations should not be given to “protests against stay-home orders,” which it claimed “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”
For many, especially conservatives, the perceived tone coming from health leaders regarding the protests over the death of Floyd versus what they say was a scolding reaction to gatherings of people exasperated by government-issued shutdown and stay-at-home orders that have decimated the economy and thrown millions out of work is stark and hypocritical.
Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the conservative Discovery Institute, took to Twitter earlier this month writing that “progressive activism is now the default belief system of the professional class.”
“They use their status as arbiters of scientific knowledge to manipulate public opinion,” he tweeted. “But they will abandon ‘science’ as soon as it conflicts with their activism.”
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck of Windsor, who also serves as head of the Colorado Republican Party, wrote a scathing June 7 op-ed for Fox News on what he described as a double standard on the part of Democratic politicians and the media when it comes to protests.
“Governors and mayors across the country acted in fear when they shuttered small businesses and closed houses of worship,” he wrote. “As a result, millions remain out of work. Substance abuse, depression and suicide are on the rise.”
Buck wrote that he had “yet to hear any state or local leaders cry ‘social distancing’ and break up these mass gatherings out of coronavirus concerns.”
“The Leftist media suddenly isn’t concerned about the threat of coronavirus spreading among large crowds of angry protesters, when just weeks ago they lauded the arrest of hairdressers for reopening their shops,” Buck wrote.
But Dr. Lisa Abuogi, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado who signed the letter praising the Floyd protesters, said today’s demonstrations are critical to passing desperately needed racial disparity measures that simply wouldn’t happen if people remain quiet.
In fact, a sweeping police accountability and reform bill quickly moved through the statehouse last week in direct response to the protests, which blew up in Denver in late May. Meanwhile, the state’s three largest police departments last week banned controversial chokeholds of suspects.
“People who are protesting are doing so out of necessity as it is one of the few means to rapidly force change that is otherwise maddeningly slow,” Abuogi said. “Social justice is not merely a nice idea but a crucial part of physicians’ responsibility to promote health. We cannot ignore one health issue to focus on another.”
“Speak your voice”
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the deep divide in American politics as much as any recent issue, with Democrats slamming President Donald Trump for what they say was an anemic and tardy response to the looming health crisis and Republicans firing back that Democrats are showing too little concern about the devastating economic impacts created by health directives meant to control the outbreak.
One thing that is undisputed is that the virus itself cares nothing of people’s political affiliations, causes or concerns, aiming only to spread, infect and kill. That reality prompted the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, to tell lawmakers in Washington in early June that he was worried the protests could become a “seeding event” for further spread of the deadly pathogen.
The director said police use of tear gas on protesters could potentially exacerbate the virus’ virulence, given that the chemical causes people to cough — a primary way the virus spreads.
The New York Times reported that infectious disease expert Trevor Bedford made a rough projection that each day of protest would result in 3,000 new infections. In turn, further spread from those carriers would over several weeks result in 15,000 to 50,000 additional cases — and 50 to 500 deaths.
Because people of color are disproportionately impacted by the virus, Bedford sounded a warning.
“Societal benefit of continued protests must be weighed against substantial potential impacts to health,” he wrote, according to The Times.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, highlighted potential messaging problems from the health community on protests and gatherings in a June 4 tweet. Tagging a story from Politico titled “Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance,” Jha called the story an “important piece … about how public health leaders stance on the current protests is straining their credibility.”
The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases, passing the 2 million mark on Thursday and registering nearly 120,000 deaths from the virus. Colorado is approaching 30,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 1,300 deaths directly attributable to the disease.
David Markenson, president of the Colorado Medical Society, said it’s important to remember that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to tie any COVID-19 surge in the next couple of months to the Floyd protests because the country as a whole has been relaxing restrictions on movement and business activity over the last month or so.
There have been several new cases of COVID-19 directly tied to the recent protests, according to The New York Times, but the true impacts of the nationwide mass gatherings likely won’t be known for a while.
Last week, the Associated Press reported that coronavirus caseloads were rising in 21 states as the economy opens back up. In Arizona, hospitals have been told to prepare for the worst, while Texas has more hospitalized COVID-19 patients than at any time before.
By contrast, Colorado continues its downward trend in infections. The state reported 117 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday — a fraction of the peak of 973 new cases recorded on April 23.
That makes a difference in how health officials may view these protests versus ones that took place a month or so ago, when caseloads were still on a steep upward trajectory and hospital capacity and equipment shortages were a far greater concern, Markenson said.
“I think we’re in a good place for health care,” he said. “We’ve flattened the curve enough that we have enough room to handle it. Our level of concern for large groups would have been higher a month ago.”
Just as people are shopping differently or having happy hours in widely spaced circles outdoors, Markenson said, protesting can be done relatively safely if proper protective measures are taken.
“Speak your voice — let people know what’s on your mind — but do it with social distancing and face coverings,” he said. “I would ask that people not restrain their desire to express their opinions, but do it in a way that protects people in society from coronavirus.”
Images from the George Floyd protests show that a vast majority of participants have been wearing masks, though few are practicing the 6-foot separation from others that health guidelines call for. It worries some medical officials that many protesters are young, a demographic that has been identified as the most likely to show mild or no symptoms of the disease, making it easier for the virus to spread undetected.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has urged demonstrators — even those without symptoms — to get tested for the coronavirus at the Pepsi Center, where the city has a free, drive-up testing site.
Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said while protesting during a pandemic is not optimum timing, people can’t choose the moment when an officer-involved killing will trigger anger and rage. Several medical students and residents from the school signed the letter praising the recent protests.
“People want to make their voices heard at this moment,” he said. “I’m not going to urge people not to gather. But I would not say these protests are risk-free. It’s an individual decision.”
Defiance isn’t protest
Colorado health officials take a similar view of the recent protests, telling The Post in a statement that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment continues “to do everything possible to limit and slow the spread of COVID-19, but we also acknowledge that the scourge of systemic racism weighs heavily on the public’s mind, and understand the need to protest or demonstrate peacefully.”
That approach stands in contrast to how the state has handled people protesting economic hardship by defying orders to shut down. After C&C Coffee and Kitchen in Castle Rock opened on Mother’s Day to a crowd of diners, most without masks on, CDPHE yanked its license.
The health agency’s executive director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, said at the time that “irresponsible behavior like this only serves to defeat all of the progress made during the Stay at Home Order in slowing the spread.”
A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis told The Post that a protest for social justice is not akin to a restaurant opening in defiance of the law, which he described as a “disappointing publicity stunt.”
Conor Cahill said Polis has been consistent when it comes to protests. The governor, he said, “did not discourage the folks protesting the Stay-at-Home order … and has not discouraged the demonstrators from taking peaceful action against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd.”
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