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Expert warns of coronavirus spike in US after mass protests

Johnnie Williams chants with the crowd during a protest in St. Louis on Monday. St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
Johnnie Williams chants with the crowd during a protest in St. Louis on Monday. St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

By Jung Min-ho

Hakim Djaballah.
Hakim Djaballah.
Hundreds of Americans died of COVID-19 every day even when most people in the country were under lockdown in one form or another over coronavirus fears.

Now, tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets daily to protest against police brutality and racism ― shouting and walking in crowds ― following the alleged murder of George Floyd.

Despite all their good intentions, this should worry health authorities around the world, according to an infectious disease expert.

"They should be very worried that a serious rebound of infections may well be on its way since it has been several days of protests across the continental USA … I think the influx of new cases would potentially be even more drastic," Hakim Djaballah, former CEO of the Institut Pasteur Korea, told The Korea Times.

"These protesters will run back to their homes and neighborhoods not knowing if they were infected or not. This can easily result in the emergence of multiple clusters across many communities and in many cities."

Given that the country is already struggling with equipment shortages, including protective gowns, and other logistical issues, such an influx could push everyone to the limit, he noted.

"Our healthcare workers are exhausted and need a well-deserved rest," Djaballah said. "It is very unfortunate that we are finding ourselves fighting more than a pandemic.

"It is very sad that strong leadership, which should be calling for calm and unity, is currently absent from the White House. This is the worst nightmare situation for any health authority."

Many protesters wear masks, but others do not. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is largely transmitted through droplets; thus, shouting slogans and breathing together during protests can accelerate the spread.

Police use tear gas and pepper spray when they feel it is necessary to subdue protesters, which causes the protesters to take off their masks and cough. This also increases the risk of transmission.

"The close proximity of protesters and their continuous interactions increase the risk of being infected by the SARs-CoV-2 virus up to 95 percent," Djaballah said. "Heavy breathing combined with sweating is an ideal virus transfer mode from one protester to the next, contaminating their clothing and potentially infecting members of law enforcement."

There is historical precedent to suggest that large public gatherings are extremely dangerous during a pandemic.
In September, 1918, the city of Philadelphia held a parade to celebrate the return of soldiers from World War I. Within several weeks, tens of thousands of people were infected with the Spanish flu, which eventually killed 675,000 Americans that year.

"The Spanish flu was first encountered in Europe, the U.S. and Asia before rapidly spreading around the world in a similar manner to SARS-CoV-2, even though the world was at war and air travel was fairly limited in those days," Djaballah said.

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, the U.S. on Monday (local time) had recorded 743 new coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, bringing its total to more than 105,000.


Johnnie Williams chants with the crowd during a protest in St. Louis on Monday. St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
Johnnie Williams chants with the crowd during a protest in St. Louis on Monday. St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

By Jung Min-ho

Hakim Djaballah.
Hakim Djaballah.
Hundreds of Americans died of COVID-19 every day even when most people in the country were under lockdown in one form or another over coronavirus fears.

Now, tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets daily to protest against police brutality and racism ― shouting and walking in crowds ― following the alleged murder of George Floyd.

Despite all their good intentions, this should worry health authorities around the world, according to an infectious disease expert.

"They should be very worried that a serious rebound of infections may well be on its way since it has been several days of protests across the continental USA … I think the influx of new cases would potentially be even more drastic," Hakim Djaballah, former CEO of the Institut Pasteur Korea, told The Korea Times.

"These protesters will run back to their homes and neighborhoods not knowing if they were infected or not. This can easily result in the emergence of multiple clusters across many communities and in many cities."

Given that the country is already struggling with equipment shortages, including protective gowns, and other logistical issues, such an influx could push everyone to the limit, he noted.

"Our healthcare workers are exhausted and need a well-deserved rest," Djaballah said. "It is very unfortunate that we are finding ourselves fighting more than a pandemic.

"It is very sad that strong leadership, which should be calling for calm and unity, is currently absent from the White House. This is the worst nightmare situation for any health authority."

Many protesters wear masks, but others do not. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is largely transmitted through droplets; thus, shouting slogans and breathing together during protests can accelerate the spread.

Police use tear gas and pepper spray when they feel it is necessary to subdue protesters, which causes the protesters to take off their masks and cough. This also increases the risk of transmission.

"The close proximity of protesters and their continuous interactions increase the risk of being infected by the SARs-CoV-2 virus up to 95 percent," Djaballah said. "Heavy breathing combined with sweating is an ideal virus transfer mode from one protester to the next, contaminating their clothing and potentially infecting members of law enforcement."

There is historical precedent to suggest that large public gatherings are extremely dangerous during a pandemic.
In September, 1918, the city of Philadelphia held a parade to celebrate the return of soldiers from World War I. Within several weeks, tens of thousands of people were infected with the Spanish flu, which eventually killed 675,000 Americans that year.

"The Spanish flu was first encountered in Europe, the U.S. and Asia before rapidly spreading around the world in a similar manner to SARS-CoV-2, even though the world was at war and air travel was fairly limited in those days," Djaballah said.

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, the U.S. on Monday (local time) had recorded 743 new coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, bringing its total to more than 105,000.


Jung Min-ho mj6c2@koreatimes.co.kr

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