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Protests could lead to spike in coronavirus cases, health and local officials warn

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 6/1/2020 Nicole Cobler
a group of people riding on the back of a bicycle: People gather by the thousands in protest of the killings of George Floyd and Michael Ramos as Austin police block their path Sunday. Large gatherings of people without masks in close quarters could increase the spread of the coronavirus. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Bronte Wittpenn People gather by the thousands in protest of the killings of George Floyd and Michael Ramos as Austin police block their path Sunday. Large gatherings of people without masks in close quarters could increase the spread of the coronavirus. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Texas could see an increase in COVID-19 cases after a weekend of protests across the state, local officials and public health experts warned Monday.

But it will be nearly impossible to know how many new cases of the coronavirus can be linked to protests in the state's most populous cities. Many of the demonstrations came less than a week after a busy Memorial Day weekend, when multiple parks around Austin closed because of overcrowding, and as many businesses have reopened with the green light from Gov. Greg Abbott.

In protests repeated in other Texas cities, thousands of demonstrators packed Austin streets over the weekend in response to the killings of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and Michael Ramos, who was fatally shot by an Austin police officer in April while driving away from officers. No gun was found in Ramos' car.

a view of a city street filled with lots of green grass: Police face off with protesters who blocked Interstate 35 near Austin police headquarters Sunday. It will be difficult to determine how much the protests contribute to an increase in COVID-19 because of other factors such as businesses reopening and people crowding parks on Memorial Day weekend. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Jay Janner Police face off with protesters who blocked Interstate 35 near Austin police headquarters Sunday. It will be difficult to determine how much the protests contribute to an increase in COVID-19 because of other factors such as businesses reopening and people crowding parks on Memorial Day weekend. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Mayor Steve Adler warned of a possible spike in coronavirus cases because of the protests, saying the demonstrations could present "a super spreader opportunity."

"If people in that demonstration yesterday had the virus, then we have the potential in having an event which we can't contact trace, that we're not going to be able to contain," he said in a Facebook Live interview Sunday with the American-Statesman. Contact tracing seeks to alert those who have come into contact with a person who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

A city of Austin spokesperson reiterated the mayor's comments Monday, warning that the incubation period for the coronavirus is between one and 14 days, meaning state numbers wouldn't immediately reflect an increase in new cases from the protests.

Dr. Mark McClellan, one of the governor's medical advisers on reopening the state's economy, said he expects there to be some spread of COVID-19 because of the protests, especially within minority communities, which have already been significantly affected by the disease.

"We've already seen big disparities in the rates of coronavirus infections and poor outcomes associated with coronavirus infections in minority communities," McClellan, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, told the American-Statesman on Monday. "While I certainly understand the reasons for the protests, it is a risk for additional transmission."

Although protests involve large crowds, McClellan said there are some signs that point to demonstrations being less risky than coming into close contact with people in a restaurant. In a protest, people tend to be moving around much more, aren't close to one another for long and reduce their risk by being outdoors, he said.

"The challenging thing is it is harder to keep track of who you've been around, making contact tracing more difficult," McClellan said.

In the days before the protests, Texas' COVID-19 cases soared, with the state hitting a record high of new cases in a single day on Sunday —1,949, according to the Department of State Health Services. The agency has attributed part of that spike to an increase in testing in Jones and Walker counties, each with multiple prisons.

That was up from the previous single-day high of 1,855 new cases set Thursday.

The health agency's latest numbers showed just 593 new cases and six deaths reported Monday.

McClellan said Texas officials should examine trends over time rather than single-day spikes in COVID-19 cases to determine whether the state should pull back on reopenings.

"They're definitely not falling," he said about coronavirus cases, adding that it's a positive sign the state has not seen widespread outbreaks or increases in hospitalizations. "On the other hand, we're not seeing a decline in cases either. If the cases continue to increase, then more caution about reopening will be needed."

The coronavirus can spread quickly in groups, especially without masks and proper social distancing, but Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said there is "not a way to reliably predict whether or how much a particular event will increase the number of cases."

"We know that large gatherings can lead to an increased spread of COVID-19 when recommended precautions are not observed," Van Deusen said in an email Monday.

The coronavirus has disproportionately affected African American and Latino communities across the country, said University of Texas professor Catherine Cubbin, whose research focuses on using epidemiological methods to understand socioeconomic and race inequalities in health.

"Health disparities are rooted in systemic racism," she said.

Maternal mortality rates are higher among black mothers, and studies have shown people of color face disparities in access to health care, Cubbin said.

That's playing out in Austin, where Latino and African American populations are overrepresented among those hospitalized with the coronavirus, public health data presented to local leaders May 19 showed.

"In terms of black and brown communities being more impacted by the virus, I think we could have easily predicted that based on the jobs they hold" and their underlying health status, Cubbin said, adding that many front-line workers across the United States are people of color.

Protesters, Cubbin said, will have to weigh the health of their community against standing up to systemic racism for future generations.

"I would think it's difficult to weigh those two things," she said.

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