There is growing concern among health care professionals, as well as the governor, that large gatherings of nationwide protests could lead to further spread of COVID-19 in minority communities that already have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Demonstrators are protesting the death of George Floyd, the man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police last week. On Long Island, there were peaceful protests over the weekend, including in Plainview, Brentwood and North Babylon. On Monday, there were more protests, including in Commack and Port Jefferson.
Some of the hardest-hit COVID-19 areas on Long Island have been minority neighborhoods, such as Brentwood, Bay Shore and Huntington Station.
“I don’t see how you could not be concerned when you see large groups of people in close proximity, screaming, chanting and yelling,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state. “It’s all horrible, because they deserve to protest, but what happens when it leads to more cases, and then the secondary cases also go directly back to those communities?”
Farber said he was slightly less concerned about Long Island communities being immediately impacted by a protest spread.
“The spread is a density issue,” he said, adding that the larger protests have taken place in large cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called progress against COVID-19 in the state “a really amazing accomplishment” that is threatened by large gatherings where the virus could gain a foothold again.
“We should be very proud of what we’ve done, just don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” Cuomo said during his daily briefing. “Now we are seeing these mass gatherings over the past couple of nights, that could in fact exacerbate” the spread. “We have to take a minute” and ask “what are we doing here? What are we trying to accomplish?”
Northwell Health has seen an 80% drop in COVID-19 patients since the peak in April, and also has reported a decrease of about 65% in the last month. Farber said the health system isn’t concerned with being overloaded by patients because of the protests.
It won’t be immediately clear what impact, if any, the protests will have on COVID-19 spread, said Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital and an infectious disease specialist.
“We would expect to start seeing cases within the week,” Polsky said. “I’m sure public health officials around the country are monitoring that situation very closely, especially when you add to that we have just begun the process of reopening our economy.”
Mass demonstrations that include people who aren’t complying with face masks “will just foster new cases and new spread,” said Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine.
She said infectious disease experts are especially worried that people of color are at risk.
“As much as I completely sympathize with the frustration and the outcry, this is just happening at the wrong time,” Fries said. “It’s almost tragic. It’s like a double whammer. Who is going to get infected? It’s again going to be the minorities.”
For example, Brentwood had 4,311 cases through May 25, which represents 68.5 cases per 1,000 people. Nearby West Islip has recorded 21 cases per 1,000 people. Wyandanch has seen an infection rate of 60.2 cases per 1,000 people, while neighboring North Babylon and Deer Park have infection rates that are less than half that.
Still, protests can be safely conducted, said Dr. Uzma Syed, infectious disease specialist for Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, one of six hospitals operated by Catholic Health Services. She added that the protests on Long Island have been “more cautious.”
“The virus is still with us, but if there is physical distancing, masks, and chalk marks for where people should stand, it’s possible” to protest safely, she said. “People who don’t feel well should also stay home, and make their voices heard another way.”
Summer McGee, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the “structural racism and bias that these groups are protesting also has caused these communities to have higher case and fatality rates from COVID-19 and a wider range of health disparities.”
She said protesters should assemble safely with face coverings and abide by social distancing requirements as much as possible.
“We cannot lose sight of the fight we are engaged in against this virus while groups fight for equality,” she said.