Covid-19 Cases Were Already Rising Before the George Floyd Protests

Across the US, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against decades of systemic racism and police brutality, and to demand justice for George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. Amid the well-documented dangers of rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray—which heavily militarized police departments have used against protesters and journalists in recent days—these mass demonstrations carry a more invisible threat, too. The deadly new coronavirus is still circulating in all 50 states. And with so many people yelling, chanting, and coughing in close proximity, the protests will almost certainly set off devastating new chains of contagion in the coming weeks. (Let’s not forget that the virus thrives in jails and prisons , and this week the police arrested more than 10,000 people.)sanitation workers cleaning stairs

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The virus typically takes four to five days to incubate before an infected person starts showing symptoms (if they show symptoms at all). But it can take up to 14 days, and—given the additional time it takes people to get tested and learn their results—that means it could be July before the number of new protest-related cases becomes clear. What scientists are already starting to see, however, is that in at least 14 states, including Minnesota, case numbers have been on the rise following the relaxation of stay-at-home orders. And correspondingly, intensive care units have been filling up. In these spikes, epidemiologists see the consequences of states opening up too early, before establishing adequate testing and tracing resources to contend with new outbreaks. And they’re worried about those two forces colliding.“We’re really dealing with a syndemic right now,” or the compounding effect of multiple, distinct health catastrophes, says Charles Branas, chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “The epidemic of racial injustice has come to a boil alongside an epidemic of Covid-19, and they’re acting together to really maximize the problem in the US.”
Branas is part of a team of Columbia disease modelers tracking the spread of Covid-19 and trying to predict demand for hospital beds, ICU beds, and ventilators for every county in the US. Their model pulls in county-level case data, hospitalization rates, testing numbers, and mobility data pulled from smartphones to make biweekly projections about new infections and expected deaths for six weeks into the future. In early May, the group predicted that by the end of the month, cases would surge anew in a number of states, including Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee, and parts of Minnesota—all ones that either reopened early or have fewer restrictions on businesses. Importantly, they wrote, the typical two-week lag between when people get infected and when testing confirms they’re sick, coupled with insufficient contact tracing , “will mask any rebound and exponential growth of Covid-19 until it is well underway.”In some places, those words have proved prescient. On Thursday, as Florida began its Phase 2 reopening, the state’s department of health reported 1,419 new coronavirus cases—its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic arrived in the state. More than 1,000 infections have been reported daily since Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 60,183. In the past week, other states have also seen record jumps in daily case counts, including California, which reported more than 3,000 positive tests on Monday; Massachusetts, which reported nearly 4,000 on Monday; and Arizona, which reported 1,127 new infections on Tuesday. “What we see in the data is pretty predictable,” former director of Arizona’s Department of Health Services Will Humble told KSAZ-TV on Saturday, pointing to the state lifting its shelter-in-place order two weeks prior.