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Kansas City Health Officials Worry That Protests May Lead To Spike In COVID-19 Cases

053120_sunday protests_fountain_CM_3.jpg
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR
A crowd is energized while listening to speeches at J.C. Nichols Fountain on Sunday.

The gatherings of hundreds of closely clustered people, combined with the recent relaxation of state and local shelter-in-place orders, are almost certain to lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, health officials say.

Kansas City public health officials are gearing up for a surge in COVID-19 cases as a result of the protests triggered by the death last Monday of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Kansas City witnessed three large gatherings of protesters on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, many of them not maintaining social distance or wearing masks, as recommended by health authorities.

“Any time you have a lot of people close together and not observing six-feet physical distancing measures, you create a more or less perfect environment for this virus to spread,” said Sanmi Areola, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

The gatherings of hundreds of closely clustered people, combined with the recent relaxation of state and local shelter-in-place orders, are almost certain to lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, health officials say.

The protesters “were at a close distance for longer than 10 minutes and unmasked, so that definitely has to be a concern,” said Terrie Garrison, interim director of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Health Department.

“Whenever there are crowds and people aren’t following those precautions, there is a concern,” said Kayla Parker, a spokeswoman for the Jackson County Health Department. “We encourage individuals who are participating to make sure they are following social distancing guidelines as much as possible and wearing their masks. We understand that this hasn’t always been the case, but as protests continue, we really deeply encourage people to take those precautions.”

People in Kansas City and other cities around the country have taken to the streets to protest the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who was arrested in Minneapolis after a shopkeeper told police he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to pay for cigarettes.

Floyd died after he was arrested and Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three fellow officers stood by. Chauvin and the three officers were fired and Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Minneapolis has been the site of largescale protests since last Monday, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has expressed concern that the densely packed crowds will lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“I am deeply concerned about a super-spreader type of incident … after this,” he said during a press conference Saturday night. “We are going to see a spike in COVID-19. It’s inevitable.”

Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days, it may be several weeks before any spike in cases materializes. And many people who don’t exhibit symptoms can still spread it.

Although the protests have taken place outdoors, where the risks of transmission are lower than indoors, public health officials say the close proximity of the protesters, many of them unmasked, for sustained periods of time is a recipe for the spread of the disease.

Minority populations already suffer from disproportionately higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations than other demographic groups, and the expected surge in cases will only add to that burden.

“We put out the social distancing guidelines because this virus does spread from person to person,” said Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department. “And as a country we obviously need to be fixing a number of these inequities and injustices that are occurring.”

Archer said that people contacted by their local health department because they’ve been exposed to the virus need to get tested “so that we can be sure you’re not spreading the disease.”

“To harm others while you're trying to correct injustices isn’t probably the best way to move forward,” Archer said. “So please wear a mask. And please take the calls if you get called from health department folks to advise you that you've felt exposed specifically.”

Local public health officials say they were preparing for a spike even before the protests, as stay-at-home orders were eased and people began returning to restaurants, bars, hair salons and other venues where people congregate in close quarters.

Johnson County has ramped up testing for the virus, administering 4,000 tests last week, including 950 on Friday alone, compared with 1,000 tests a week just a few weeks earlier.

“Broad testing would allow us to quickly detect people that are infected, isolate them, talk to them about their contacts and put them in quarantine,” Areola said.

Kansas has reported 9,755 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 217 deaths. Missouri has reported 13,147 confirmed cases, including 772 deaths.

As of Friday, the Kansas City metro had registered more than 4,000 cases and 184 deaths.

Areola urged people who have taken part in the protests to get themselves tested.

“The virus is here and the risk is here,” he said. “You might not be susceptible to the adverse effects, but you might spread it to people who are more susceptible. So let’s do things carefully. Let’s not forget what we've had to do in the past two-and-a-half months in dealing with this virus. And so as we reopen things, let’s do them cautiously and just be careful.”

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