2020 | Coronavirus

Health officer concerned that protests could cause COVID-19 spike

Gayles says crowds complicate contact tracing, but rallies, marches held for a reason

share this

Montgomery County's Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles speaks during a recent press conference.

File photo

Large-scale protests in response to the death of George Floyd could lead to a spike in local COVID-19 cases and complicate the county’s contact tracing efforts, Montgomery County Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said Wednesday.

During a call with reporters, Gayles said officials are preparing for the possibility that the number of people who are sick with the coronavirus could increase in the coming week as local residents gather in large groups throughout the county to protest Floyd’s death.

“It does give us pause, because you’ve got a large number of people in a space where they’re coming into contact with other folks,” Gayles said. “… Certainly, we do expect we may see a number of cases pop up from these larger gatherings.”

Floyd, who was black, died on May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Police were investigating a call about someone using a fake $20 bill at a store.

A murder charge against the officer was upgraded on Wednesday and three other officers were charged. All four were fired.

Floyd’s death has sparked protests in cities across the country.

Since early March, when the first local cases of the coronavirus were reported, Montgomery County has had strict measures in effect to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer to slow its spread. But hundreds of local residents have taken to the streets in recent days to speak out against police violence against black people.

The first Montgomery County protest was held on Sunday in Germantown, and others have been held in Gaithersburg, Bethesda, Clarksburg and Leisure World. More are planned during the week, including in Silver Spring on Thursday and Rockville on Friday.

Montgomery County’s protests have been peaceful, in contrast to tense and sometimes violent demonstrations in neighboring Washington, D.C.

Protest organizers often remind people to wear masks and take other precautions.

Gayles said people who attend protests should wear face coverings, wash their hands frequently and limit their interactions to people who they live with. He also suggested that people limit shouting to “minimize the droplets coming out of your mouth that may come into contact with others.”

The protests could also cause problems for contact tracing efforts, he said.

When a person tests positive for the coronavirus, Department of Health employees conduct an interview to determine where that person has been in the past two weeks — the estimated time a person could be infected before showing symptoms. Typically, officials would then contact people who they think might have been in contact with the infected person and ask them to monitor for symptoms or to self-quarantine.

But it will be difficult, if not impossible, to notify everyone who attends a protest that someone who was there is sick with COVID-19.

“Recognizing these challenges, we are remaining vigilant and we are watching numbers as they roll in over the next week or so in the context of these situations,” Gayles said.

Gayles, who is black, said that while there is a risk to attending protests and rallies while the coronavirus is still prominent in the county, he understands why they’re happening.

“Let me go on the record and be perfectly honest: There’s a reason why people are protesting,” he said. “There’s a reason why they’re gathering.”

While the protests are focused on recent instances of police brutality, Gayles said, “those events are informed by numerous others” that manifest in “longstanding disparities” between black people and white people.

The same disparities — in housing and health care, for example — are why black and Hispanic people have been “disproportionately impacted” by COVID-19, he said.

“The reality is, if you look at the numbers, COVID-19 cases are disproportionately in the communities that are protesting, and you have to ask yourself, ‘Well, how is this all tied together?’” Gayles said. “The public health response has to deal with the short-term, in terms of infection control, but we also have to address the long-term consequences to understand how those particular factors and drivers have contributed to longstanding disparities in pre-existing conditions that have set up certain communities to be disproportionately impacted.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com