• The current news has eclipsed it, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still an ongoing emergency.
  • Following physical distancing guidelines and wearing a mask are essential to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Studies confirm that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets created when someone with an infection coughs, sneezes, or talks.

Massive protests are sweeping across the United States following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, fueling fears that large crowds will lead to surging cases of COVID-19.

“We need the help of everyone involved to prevent additional suffering and preventable death by following the public health guidelines to limit COVID-19 spread,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in a statement.

Since Floyd’s death, thousands of people have attended rallies and demonstrations in Minneapolis, with others springing up across the United States in major cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

The current news has eclipsed it, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still an ongoing emergency. And while some states have relaxed restrictions on movement and nonessential business, the risk of infection is still a very real danger.

Following physical distancing guidelines and wearing a mask are essential to reduce the risk of infection.

“People should wear a proper-fitting mask that’s snug and secure and keep it on at all times. Some other cloth face mask tips include multiple layers of fabric, no restricted breathing, wash hands after use, and machine wash routinely,” Dr. Nikhil Bhayani, an infectious disease physician with DFW Infectious Diseases PLLC and Texas Health Alliance, told Healthline.

Studies confirm that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets created when someone with an infection coughs, sneezes, or talks.

These droplets may land in the mouths or noses of nearby people, or be inhaled into the lungs, where the virus can proliferate.

There are two ways to reduce this risk: physical distancing and wearing a face mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people wear cloth masks when in public spaces where physical distancing measures “are difficult to maintain.”

The CDC specifies this includes locations like grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations. But for people who are demonstrating outdoors, face masks may still offer a significant level of protection.

In contrast, according to the CDC, physical distancing “means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home.”

The CDC further recommends maintaining at least 6 feet (2 meters) between yourself and others.

Physical distancing recommendations and mask use have helped flatten the curve of new infections. But if previous pandemics are any indication of what to expect, what we’ve seen so far may only be the beginning.

Pandemics may return in waves.

“When we speak about a second wave, classically what we often mean is there will be a first wave of the disease by itself, and then it recurs months later. And that may be a reality for many countries in a number of months’ time,” Dr. Mike Ryan, World Health Organization (WHO) emergencies head, said in a statement.

Ryan explained that epidemics often come in waves, meaning that outbreaks could come back later this year in places where the first wave has subsided.

And he cautioned there’s a chance infection rates could rise again if measures to halt the first wave are lifted too soon.

According to Bhayani, a superspreader event is any mass public event where hundreds of attendees can infect themselves in the space of a few hours.

“Banning a ‘superspreader’ event and/or wearing face masks might slow down the pace of COVID-19 progression to a manageable level,” he said.

However, banning the current demonstrations isn’t only counter to the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, it’s also very unlikely any such attempts will be successful, given the difficult circumstances.

Additionally, experts have found that being outside appears to drastically lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19. Some officials have even published info on how to protest and protect yourself from disease.

The California Department of Public Health recently released guidelines for protesting safely during the pandemic.

Regardless, experts believe these demonstrations will have severe consequences for the nation’s health.

“There’s going to be a lot of issues coming out of what’s happened in the last week, but one of them is going to be that chains of transmission will have become lit from these gatherings,” former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CBS News.

A perspective article recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases emphasizes that healthcare facilities are critical for prevention and control of superspreader events.

“Targeted control measures include rapid identification and isolation of all potentially infectious patients,” the authors wrote.

They conclude that “surveillance and focused response efforts” should prioritize environments at high risk for superspreader events, which includes sites of mass gatherings.

Recent mass protests have eclipsed efforts to reduce COVID-19 infection risk, but wearing face masks and practicing physical distancing as much as possible may still reduce the rate of infection — even during this period of social unrest.

Experts emphasize the danger of a second wave of infections, something already seen with previous pandemics. They also believe there will be long-term effects from these mass gatherings across the United States.

The danger of superspreader events associated with protests means health officials must be prepared to move rapidly to identify people who have an infection and isolate them to prevent COVID-19 spread.

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