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Health Experts Weigh In On COVID Concerns Amid Protests

(Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News) 
(Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As protests over the death of George Floyd continue in Richmond while COVID-19 cases continue to climb, area health experts are weighing in on some considerations for police and protesters. 

Leigh-Ann Webb is on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients at UVA Health, and the coauthor of a book about COVID-19 response for kids. While she thinks protesting can coexist with the pandemic, Webb and other infectious disease specialists are calling for an end to police use of teargas, and other tactics on protesters. 

“Tear gas makes people cough,” Webb said. “And that can cause even more virus particles in the air....Same problem when it comes to arresting large groups of protestors and transporting them on busses in close contact with each other.”

Webb points to the large number of coronavirus cases in jails and prisons, and worries additional arrests will exacerbate the spread of the virus. She’s challenging police to hand out masks, water bottles and other supplies to protect protesters. 

Steve Woolf studies health inequity at VCU, and encourages protesters to wear masks and figure out ways to stay as far apart as possible. “We see examples of this in some communities where circles have been drawn on the grass to identify areas where each of the protesters should stand,” Woolf said. He admits that’s difficult to do, though. 

Woolf said VCU has been sending out alerts,  so hospital staff know how to navigate around areas that have been sealed off for protests. “That's just a necessary reality in situations like this, but it is a factor that the healthcare system is having to adjust to,” Woolf said. 

And while Woolf and Webb say there will likely be a spike in people contracting COVID-19 because of the protests, they say it’s too soon to know the extent. Webb insists that UVA is prepared to deal with an uptick in hospitalizations, although a spokesperson for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association says the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and positive cases has “continued to track downward” since the protests began in the past week. 

“Here in Virginia, we have prepared for this worst-case scenario,” Webb said. “We were looking at New York City and at these epicenters and other hotspots around the country, we actually did not get this sort of Armageddon-style influx of COVID-19 patients, but we were preparing for that. I hope we don't ever see that.” 

VPM has reached out to the Richmond and Henrico Health district to find out how protests have affected testing efforts in the city, especially among vulnerable communities as part of a state equity task force. We’ve also inquired about what will be done to ramp up testing again after protests die down. They did not respond to questions by deadline.

“The dilemma here is that the reason for the protests -- the core issue that is bringing people to the streets -- is the very problem that is producing the health inequities of the very population that is also victimized by criminal injustice,” Woolf said.

“I think they [protesters] assume the benefits of protesting hundreds of years of systemic racism and oppression in America is worth that risk,” Webb said. “Racism has actually been weaved into the fundamental values of health and human rights for hundreds of years here. It's a historic problem.”