On Wednesday, District 2 Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. Just three days prior, she led a protest of about 2,000 people through downtown Athens.
The protest, the largest Athens has seen in years, was one of hundreds occurring around the country against racial injustice and the deaths of black people at the hands of police. In addition to marching around downtown, Parker led chants, using a megaphone that Mayor Kelly Girtz and activists spoke into.
Grace Bagwell Adams is an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, where she also serves as the assistant dean for outreach, engagement and equity. She expects cases to increase in the wake of protests, on a national scale and here in Athens.
“I totally understand and respect an individual’s first amendment right to peacefully protest, for certain,” Adams said. However, she also emphasized that it was the job of public officials and protest organizers to “take a public health approach” to managing protests.
There have been more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19 in Georgia so far, with 2,174 deaths in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Adams said testing centers in Athens are experiencing overload in the wake of the protests — four to five hour waits at sites that just a week ago had virtually no wait. Still, she strongly recommended that anyone who plans to attend a protest get pre-emptively tested to prevent the spread of the virus, and to get tested again after the protest.
The risk for contracting the coronavirus is “exponentially greater” for those who gather in large groups, Adams said, adding that chants and shouts have the risk of expelling viral droplets, which can increase the spread of the virus.
Tests are most accurate in detecting the virus five to seven days after exposure, Adams said. Due to the time it takes to analyze test results and report them to officials, it may be two to three weeks before official case counts reflect the effects of the protests.
A smaller group of protesters has gathered near the Arch every day this week to continue protesting, with the crowd size ranging from a couple dozen to around 70. A demonstration planned for this Saturday will likely attract a much larger crowd — a Facebook event for the protest has 1,100 users “going,” with 1,900 “interested” on Friday.
The protest is organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. The organization’s founder, Mokah Jasmine Johnson, sent out a press release on June 5 saying the protest would proceed as planned, with public health measures planned.
The event will take place at City Hall and will not include marching, so that attendees can more effectively social distance. People who believe they have the coronavirus, those who are immunocompromised and the elderly are discouraged from attending. Protesters are encouraged to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart, and on-site medical stations will be set up to provide hand sanitizer and masks.
Around midnight on May 31, Athens-Clarke County Police Department officers used tear gas to disperse about 100 protesters who were assembled near the Arch, remnants of the large protest earlier in the evening. ACCPD’s decision to use tear gas and projectiles, as well as inconsistencies between protester accounts and the police narrative, has been hotly debated in Athens this week.
According to the Associated Press, Emory University infectious disease specialist Dr. Jay Varkey said in a Friday news conference that the use of tear gas worries him, as it causes people to rub their eyes. ProPublica has also reported that tear gas can cause lung damage that makes people more susceptible to infection, and more difficult for the body to recover from COVID-19.
More than anything, Adams stressed that people keep the risks of a pandemic in mind, even while the news cycle is dominated by protest coverage.
“For so long we were all singularly focused on COVID, and now there has been a big switch, especially national and state and local media last week, on the protests, but we have to remember that these things are happening at the same time,” Adams said. “While it’s difficult, we really have to make sure that we are still considering how to support and promote the public’s health.”