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Memorial Day, George Floyd-inspired protests and the spread of SARS-CoV-2

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

These thoughts are increasingly coming to mind.  I support my black friends and the idea of coming together to battle racism, but as I see protests and rallies growing in size and continuing day after day -- looking at the enormous crowds in Washington DC and Philadelphia and other places over the weekend, I am getting seriously concerned about their implications in the pandemic.

My viewpoint for over two months is that lockdowns were a blunt instrument that needed to be relaxed in favor of more targeted mitigation strategies, given the severe damage they were causing to many in society, like in many crises inordinately affecting the most vulnerable, including black Americans.  Indeed, the unemployment results last week bore this out that the lockdown and pandemic-induced unemployment situation is worse and not rebounding as quickly for black Americans.

As I have seen extreme media hand-wringing about states “opening too soon” and the carnage these foolish decisions would bring, I have watched hopefully, expecting that targeted mitigation strategies like avoiding big crowds, especially like sporting events with shouting or cheering, basic social distancing and mask wearing would be enough to limit the viral spread while enabling more people, especially those out of work because of lockdowns, to begin to return to normalcy.  

I have been encouraged as the predicted surges didn’t happen, hoping that the abundance of caution and common sense practiced by many was controlling the spread.  I was concerned about a bump from Memorial Day gatherings, which I think we are seeing now, but also hopeful it would be relatively minor given most gatherings were outdoor and in heat and humidity, and that we would withstand it and the virus incidence would not spike too severely and then quickly recover.

As the George Floyd inspired protests and gatherings started I thought the same thing — mostly outdoors, in the heat, maybe it won’t be a big deal in terms of viral spread.

But now after these protests have continued for weeks, and the crowds are getting larger and more densely packed, with many loudly proclaiming their support for a cause that is just and passionately supported by so many, my concern level is spiraling upwards.  

I still hope that the fact that these protests are outdoors and it is hot and humid will be enough to prevent a major protest-induced surge.  Indeed if there is no surge, we should have enough evidence that we can return to normal summer activities and gather at vacation spots and maybe even baseball stadiums and enjoy the summer -- that outdoor spread is not enough of a risk to shut down summer activities. This would be most welcome.

But if this does induce a major surge, it will strike many of the most vulnerable — minorities in the urban areas — who have already been most devastated by the virus AND the lockdowns.

I don’t like to get political since I know how passionately many people hold their viewpoints and how divisive political arguments can be, but I want to reiterate an important point I have made in my covid-datascience blog from the start --  in learning about and dealing with this pandemic, we MUST filter out our political views if we are to have any hope in quickly learning insights about this novel virus and discern and communicate effective strategies to prevent its spread, test, treat, and eventually defeat it.  I have seen political views on both sides cause people to not look objectively at what is going on and misunderstand the covid-19 crisis. Politics obscures the search for truth. Clear thought about this virus requires setting aside our political viewpoints.

This principle has never been more evident to me than in the 180 degree turn from many in the media and government who were until recently decrying the risk of states opening “too soon” and now showing little to no concern about the potential viral surge that the protests may induce.  As I have seen so often during the pandemic, there is a failure to present a balanced message that takes into account various aspects of what is going on -- in this case one that acknowledges the need and justification for the protests yet tries to balance out potential risk they may pose in terms of viral spread.

 It IS possible to both support the black community and the fight against injustice AND communicate caution inherent to the current pandemic. If people are close together and exposed to the virus, the virus will not care about race, politics, or the rightness of the cause -- it will do what viruses do -- try to spread to new hosts.

I will continue to watch and be hopeful that the data will tell us things are ok and the virus will not spike, but my optimism is down and my level of concern heightened. The PolicyLab COVID-19 modeling efforts have already marked locations to watch for a potential Memorial Day induced surge, and we will also look in the next two weeks for a potential protest-induced surge.

I hope we as a society can find the subtle balance between allowing our lives and society to function as fully as possible, including support for important causes, while taking the basic precautions we have learned are necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our actions in the summer will have major implications in the fall, on the fate of the school year for children and college students, and whether we are forced to endure widespread government-induced lockdowns again when the weather gets colder. I am concerned about a long-term impact on education in our society, and also afraid our society cannot bear more lockdowns, so am hoping we keep the virus under control without having to take such measures.

UPDATE 6/9/2020: We looked at results through 6/7/20 in our PolicyLab modeling (new results should be uploaded by tomorrow) and focused on areas that were likely vacation hot-spots for Memorial Day weekend and demonstrated higher cell phone encounter data suggesting high levels of interaction. In looking at the data, THANKFULLY there is VERY LITTLE evidence of any Memorial Day surge. All around Lake Michigan, on the East Coast beaches and the Gulf coast beaches from Biloxi to Pensacola, there is no evidence of any increase through 6/7, which is late enough that any Memorial Day surge would have started to show up by now. Florida shows some potential effect, and Galveston TX and Brownsville TX down near South Padre Island maybe, and there is a little bit but not much in California.

This is extremely promising, suggesting that maybe even with the increased crowds over Memorial Day weekend, given the crowding was mostly outdoors in hot and humid weather, viral spread efficiency was low, and maybe did not cause a great deal of infections. If this is true, then maybe there will not be much of a surge coming from the protests and demonstrations, since most of the crowds were outdoors in the heat and humidity as well. There may have been more loudness -- cheering or chanting that could expel more virus from any infected individuals -- than Memorial Day so we will have to wait and see, but I am encouraged maybe it will not be so bad.

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