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Will the protests spread COVID-19? The police response is the more likely culprit

Holding thousands in jail cells and spraying protesters with tear gas could help to spread the coronavirus, which is already disproportionately impacting Black Americans.

Will the protests spread COVID-19? The police response is the more likely culprit
A demonstrator protesting the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, raises his hands in front of police in riot gear outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. [Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images]
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On Monday night, protesters seeking justice for the death of George Floyd arranged themselves and their handwritten signs on H Street, near the White House in Washington, D.C., where President Trump was supposed to make a speech. About 30 minutes before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew, the United States Park Police, the Secret Service, and officers from the Department of Homeland Security began to shuffle protesters around and block the road, according to accounts from several reporters and protesters present. Ten minutes later, sparks flew into the crowd as law enforcement began setting off flash grenades. Then came the hail of rubber bullets and the canisters of pepper spray and smoke.

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In total, over 300 people were arrested Monday night primarily for violating curfew, according to D.C. television news station WUSA. Throughout the U.S. approximately 10,000 people have been arrested in protest-related activities, according to the Associated Press. While there are some legitimate fears about the coronavirus spreading among the crowds of people massing at protests, the police response—from thousands of arrests to the use of tear gas—also plays a big role.

“Holding someone in a jail cell overnight without giving them access to hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies in a confined environment for a long period of time certainly increases opportunities for the spread of the virus,” says Sandhya Kajeepeta, a PhD student at Columbia University, who published a paper on the rise in county mortality rates when incarceration increased between 1987 and 2016. It is not just holding protesters in jail that may advance the spread of COVID-19. Police tactics used on the ground at protests could also affect transmission. Kajeepeta says that pepper spray causes eye watering and coughing, which can expel disease-spreading respiratory droplets into the air.

Law enforcement and a COVID-19 spike

There has been a fairly broad concern, particularly from politicians, that the George Floyd protests taking place across the United States will spark a spike in COVID-19 cases. Some epidemiologists say that because protests are taking place outside, there may be lower risk. Images and videos from the protests show that many protesters are wearing masks, though some are not. One study shows that yelling could help spread COVID-19, since it is spread through respiratory droplets, though the study focuses on its effect in confined environments.

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Less examined are the choices police have made in responding to protesters, choices that also have an effect on public health. “As government officials, they are tasked with protecting the public and keeping us safe,” Kajeepeta says. “Police should be held responsible for their role in spreading the virus.”

All of those things are going to contribute to more death and trauma, specifically among Black Americans.”

Sandhya Kajeepeta

In an op-ed for the criminal justice publication The Appeal, Kajeepeta and Seth J. Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, reflected on the role that jails and prisons have historically had as hot spots for infectious disease. Incarceration is notoriously linked to poor health outcomes. Notably, prisons have become a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. Data from the Legal Aid Society shows that the rate of infection among Department of Corrections workers and inmates in New York City was 11.61% at the end of May. By comparison, the rate of infection in New York City was 2.5% for the same time period. To mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, Prins and Kajeepeta argue that legal systems should release as many prisoners as possible. Some jurisdictions have made changes to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails. However, the recent arrest of large numbers of protesters flies in the face of this wisdom.

“Jails are harmful for public health even under normal circumstances, even if you remove this emergency context of a pandemic,” she says. “So you can only imagine that when you compound this pandemic, that could potentially be fatal, onto this pre-existing system that aids in the spread of infectious disease, and now you’re compounding mass arrests of protesters at an unprecedented level—all of those things are going to contribute to more death and trauma, specifically among Black Americans.”

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Black health as public health

There are still other aspects of police response that have ramifications for public health and the spread of the coronavirus. Trauma—such as the trauma of encountering police violence at a protest—is itself a public health issue. Last year, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a study showing that Black Americans exposed to high levels of stress, particularly stress related to discrimination or socioeconomic status, are at more risk of developing high blood pressure (also known as hypertension). African Americans have the highest rates of hypertension (40%) in the U.S., according to the CDC. People who suffer from hypertension are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Black health is rife with this kind of sequelae, medical conditions that beget a string of other medical conditions. Black Americans, many of whom live in neighborhoods deprived of quality food access, have higher rates of diabetes than white Americans, again putting them at greater risk of contracting coronavirus. They are also disproportionately represented among prison populations. It should come as no surprise that Black Americans have taken the hardest hit from the coronavirus. American Public Media’s Research Lab found that Black Americans represent 25% of coronavirus-related deaths in 40 states and the District of Columbia, despite comprising only 13% of the U.S. population. In 13 states plus the District of Columbia, “Black residents’ share of the deaths exceed their share of the population by 10 to 31 percentage points,” the report notes, calling these discrepancies exceptionally large. Although many coronavirus cases have not been identified by race, a recent amfAR study shows that disproportionately Black counties account for roughly half of COVID-19 cases.

They would still be willing to go out in that risk to demonstrate how unacceptable this murder was.”

Riana Elyse Anderson

Protesters are currently seeking justice for the killing of George Floyd, a resident in Minneapolis who died of asphyxia while under the knee of a police officer. His story is reminiscent of several other Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade among a long list of others, all of whom died at the hands of law enforcement (or in the case of Arbery, former law enforcement). But people aren’t just protesting their deaths—they’re also demonstrating against the myriad threats to Black lives at large, from police violence and extra-legal killings to disease. George Floyd tested positive for COVID-19 in April, a fact that was revealed in his autopsy report.

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“Despite the known public health risk that people who are already more at risk of transmission of the virus are facing, they would still be willing to go out in that risk to demonstrate how unacceptable this murder was,” says Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor of health behavior and education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

She says that in videos and photos of the protest, police are not necessarily wearing masks themselves or wearing gloves when they make arrests. “The use of tear gas and inflammatory agents that would cause people to have to take their masks off or to touch their faces has been legally challenged in a lot of these cases,” she says. “It makes you wonder just how . . . it’s no longer happenstance that police are using these tactics.”

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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