Many of the hundreds of thousands who joined recent protests in cities across America disregarded precautions against catching coronavirus. The determination to speak out took precedence over social distancing principles in packed streets. Many skipped wearing masks.
These protests are righteous, to be sure, but they could have sweeping consequences for public health. State officials need to ensure that testing supplies are adequate.
Many public health officials support the protests; an open letter signed by 1,288 health professionals and leaders correctly defines white supremacy as “a lethal public health issue.”
But care must be taken by everyone. Protesters and law enforcement alike — as well as their families — and health care providers should monitor their health carefully. Locally, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County is encouraging protesters to self-quarantine for two weeks after assembling and watch for symptoms.
State leaders in Minnesota, Illinois and New York all obtained adequate supplies and are urging all protesters to get tested. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called testing a “civic duty” of every protester Thursday.
But Washington state remains in no condition to do the same, a function of not having enough testing supplies. State guidelines for COVID-19 testing still require people to have symptoms.
Gov. Jay Inslee has rightly blasted the federal government for not providing Washington with all the COVID-19 response materials the state needs, including testing kits.
In a Thursday news conference, Inslee ducked a question about why Washington failed where other states succeeded in getting supplies to test all protesters. He did say that the state is still struggling to obtain adequate materials. ... This failure resulted in a policy inadequate to meet the moment.
Meanwhile, expect more COVID-19 cases.
“We will probably see a significant spike in the virus,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told this editorial board on June 2. The city and University of Washington Medicine established a new partnership to provide free testing at sites in Seattle, representing meaningful progress.
Medical researchers have found that potentially a large majority of COVID-19 carriers develop no symptoms or mild ones that could be easily missed. Inslee’s team knows this.
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said Thursday that infection can spread before the carrier has symptoms. That should be the billboard message, not a footnote, for protesters at risk of tracking home a virus that could sicken or kill loved ones. Durkan’s staff refused on Tuesday and Friday to tell this editorial board why reporting symptoms was among Seattle’s requirements to get tested. Saturday, the city correctly reversed course and opened up its two free test sites to anyone who has attended the protests, symptomatic or not. Still, the city can only provide 1,600 tests per day, which is a sliver of the crowd size at the daily protests. More test kits must be obtained to make asymptomatic testing available statewide.
This need is imminent. A person’s COVID-19 viral loads are likely to spike three to four days after exposure, said Dr. Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutch Cancer Center, adding: “If we see a cluster of symptomatic infections, it would suggest a bigger risk of exposure, and then I would recommend testing for everyone attending.”
Public health officials must prepare for that worst-case outcome today. The consequences of a COVID-19 upswing are too grave to be assigned anything other than top priority.