Coronavirus stalks nation focused on George Floyd protests

The protests over the murder of a black man at the hands of police officers have dominated news headlines for a week, even as the death toll from the deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to mount in the United States and across the world.

Nearly 11,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the 11 days since George Floyd died on a Minneapolis street corner, and more than 200,000 people have tested positive. 

There are encouraging signs out of early epicenters like the New York City area, which did not report a coronavirus-related death on Thursday for the first time since March. 

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And while health experts worried about the potential for super-spreading events over the Memorial Day weekend when tourists jammed the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., or pool parties in the Lake of the Ozarks, there are few signs so far that those events spread the virus. The country will not know for at least another two weeks whether the protests against police brutality will act as spreading events.

Instead, the spread of the coronavirus has become more diffuse, as case counts rise steadily in places like Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and in Washington state, where public health officials thought they were increasingly bringing the virus under control.

In Alaska, a state that went 45 days without experiencing a double-digit increase in the number of cases on any one day, about 20 new cases have been confirmed on four of the last five days. Texas has confirmed more than 1,000 new cases a day for each of the last 10 days, and 10,000 new cases this week alone. The number of new cases confirmed this week in Arizona, 5,055, is more than double the number confirmed there last week.

Twenty-three states have seen week-over-week increases in the number of new coronavirus cases. Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Vermont all recorded their highest number of new confirmed cases so far in the outbreak in just the last four days.

The nation is still recording about 1,000 new COVID-19 deaths a day, and 20,000 new confirmed cases. Sometime this weekend, the official tallies will record 110,000 deaths in the United States. 

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The case counts and deaths “seem to be stable there or gradually climbing during what should otherwise be a seasonally low period for transmission,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who ran USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration.

Public health experts say the coming weeks will provide critical hints about the summer months to come. An antsy populace that has already suffered through months of lockdown is inching back into public, though widespread fear still remains. 

“To some degree, you expect to see cases go up, and that's the price of reopening,” said David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. “There are places that I suspect a lot of people are shrugging their shoulders and just rushing forward.”

Models maintained by Rubin’s team show the number of cases are still rising substantially in Chicago and Minneapolis. The models suggest Houston, Dallas and Phoenix are poised for significant outbreaks. And though the Memorial Day break did not lead to an explosion in cases, Rubin is tracking rising case counts in communities around the Atlantic shore, the Pocono Mountains, Lake Michigan and Southern California. 

As the weather grows warmer and more humid, the spread of influenza typically dies down. If the same happens for the coronavirus, states will feel more pressure to loosen restrictions on economic activity. But epidemiologists and health experts warn that lower case counts can quickly spiral out of control if Americans let down their guard.

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“People grow tired. It's very difficult to keep up all of these measures, and we must remain strong and vigilant,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the technical side of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response. “That in a sense could make the virus more dangerous because people could become complacent.”

Though the protests have overshadowed the virus in recent days, they have also underscored the disproportionate extent to which the toll of the virus has fallen on black and brown people. In most states where African Americans make up a substantial portion of the population, they also make up a disproportionate number of those who have both contracted the virus and died of the disease.

In many ways, the same systemic racism that has led to the deaths of unarmed black and Hispanic men at the hands of police is responsible for that disparate toll. Minorities are more likely to work in public-facing positions, in grocery stores or convenience stores or long-term care facilities. They are more likely to live in dense urban areas, where bad air quality exacerbates both the number and severity of respiratory illnesses like the coronavirus. And they are less likely to have access to quality health care.

“Both the pandemic and police brutality, along with other forms of violent system racism and inequality, are disproportionately killing Black Americans and they are equally urgent,” Nita Bharti, a biologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, said in an email. “There may be a resurgence of cases following the many premature re-openings that coincide with local protests. Assigning the cause of transmission will be part of a political message.”

If there is one positive to the protests that might reduce the threat of coronavirus transmission, it may be that they are happening outdoors. Only a small handful of incidents of transmission occurring in open air have been documented by researchers.

“We don't believe outdoor transmission is a huge vector in this,” Rubin said. “It suggests to us that some of our outdoor activities are safe, as we suspected.”