Protests disrupt contact tracing, could cause uptick in coronavirus cases

Health officials say their fledgling efforts to trace and stem the spread of the coronavirus could be hampered by protests across the country.

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The situation could mean more bad news for businesses seeking to recover from coronavirus shutdowns and recent rioting: Contact tracing is a key element of many states’ plans to further reopen their economies. A lack of contact tracing could result in uptick in COVID-19 cases and delay reopening plans.

Large groups of protesters in numerous cities are causes for concern for infectious disease experts.

“Whenever you have people in crowded places and close proximity, you have an increased possibility of spread from person-to-person,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I think if you have the element of public disruption where people are gathering in a disruptive way without any control over crowds and people are intermingling, clearly there is a chance there will be an uptick in infections …”

State and local officials have been attempting to gradually reopen after weeks of stay-at-home orders, but health experts say widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation must be in place to prevent new outbreaks of infections.

“A mass gathering is a mass gathering. When people are socially interacting and unable to social distance, shouting, and being sprayed with agents that caused them to cough, it is a simple biological fact the transmission events are going to occur,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. ” … The sheer numbers of exposures in some cities may be above the threshold that a health department can handle in terms of contact tracing.

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“If these protests lead to surges in cases and transmission chains that spill into hospitals and cause stress on the system, it will be a setback to reopening safely,” Dr. Adalja said.

Thousands of people across the country have protested the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on Memorial Day after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

The protests’ impact on the spread of COVID-19 is unknown.

Most demonstrations were outside, where the chance for spread is lower, and some protesters have been properly wearing masks, noted Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. He said the demonstrations could accelerate or lead to spikes in infections in parts of the country, particularly among people of color.

“That’s exactly the population that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and I have concerns that some new infections may be acquired during these demonstrations and then taken home to family and friends to spread even further,” said Dr. Schaffner.

He added that mistrust in government officials and authority figures could disrupt contact tracing. People could be “leary” about providing the contact information of individuals they have been demonstrating with, Dr. Schaffner said.

The protests also are disrupting coronavirus testing efforts in parts of the country.

Some of the testing clinics in Minneapolis have been damaged during riots, according to a city government spokesperson. Two sites in Jacksonville, Florida, cancelled coronavirus testing on Sunday due to concerns about riots in the downtown area, and they remained closed Monday.

All community-based coronavirus testing sites in Illinois were closed Monday following an announcement that public transportation and businesses across the state shut down over the weekend due to protests and looting in Chicago and other cities, Patch reported.

On Saturday, Los Angeles’ mayor announced the closure of COVID-19 testing centers out of safety concerns from violent protests.

“When you try to do public health measures, when you have disruptions like this, this could get in the way of the effectiveness of public health measures,” Dr. Fauci said.

χ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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