The nationwide protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death are unfortunately not happening in a vacuum—we’re still very much in the midst of a once-in-a-century viral pandemic spread by close contact. This week, officials in Texas and New York said that demonstrators should get tested for the coronavirus. But there are a few important considerations to keep in mind if you’ve recently protested and are unsure about getting a covid-19 test.
The bottom line: You should get tested if you can, but you don’t have to say that you were at a protest—and in fact, you probably shouldn’t report it, given concerns about retaliation against demonstrators. If you aren’t able or don’t want to get tested, then you should act as though you may have been exposed and limit your contact with other people for the next two weeks.
First, there’s the issue of timing. While people can develop the viral infection as quickly as two days post-exposure, the median length of incubation is around five days and can go as high as 14 days. So getting tested the day after attending a protest isn’t going to tell you if you’re now infected because of it.
As for the actual risk of covid-19 that may come with protesting, that’s still an unknown. Many public health experts have agreed that these large public gatherings could certainly lead to spikes in cases, but it’s a complicated picture.
For one, the virus spreads most easily between people who have prolonged close contact indoors, like families under the same roof or diners sitting near each other in a restaurant. There have been very few cases of transmission clearly linked to the outdoors. And while the summer weather won’t completely prevent transmission, studies have suggested that it will have some modest effect. On any given day, the number of people attending even large protests in a region also probably pales in comparison to the number of people who are regularly exposed to others through their public-facing jobs or daily routines, especially as the country begins to reopen. So any protest-related spikes in covid-19 cases might be relatively small.
That said, if any outdoor activity could noticeably raise the risk of catching covid-19, it’s probably a large protest where people are bunched together and shouting loudly, with or without masks. The indiscriminate use of tear gas by the police, coupled with detaining large groups of protesters and shoving them into confined spaces, isn’t helping matters either.
State officials in New York, Texas, and elsewhere have started to recommend that people get tested if they’ve protested. That brings up some obvious privacy concerns, including that people may be targeted by police or the government for having attended a demonstration. Some health departments are explicitly telling people that they don’t have to tell health care workers about their protest attendance, just that they have reason to suspect they could have been close to someone with the virus. This expectation of privacy isn’t anything new: People similarly aren’t required to disclose their immigration status to obtain free covid-19 testing. There have also been no reports of protesters getting caught up by police stings because they got tested.
On the other hand, the ramping up of contact tracing, where investigators try to identify any potential sources of exposure through detailed interviews with confirmed cases, may directly ask people to reveal their protest history. There are lingering concerns, even expressed by local officials, about whether the data obtained from these interviews will be kept secure and not used against people. There’s no perfect answer to this, so you have to weigh the privacy concerns for yourself.
Because of the inherent risk that comes with spending time around large groups of people, yes, it’s in everyone’s best interest to get tested in a week’s time if you’ve recently attended a protest. A sensible alternative to testing would be to isolate for 14 days. Just remember, you can contract the coronavirus and spread it to others without feeling sick, so having no symptoms a week after your last protest isn’t a guarantee that you’re covid-19 free.
And of course, if you’re planning on attending a protest, then there are steps you can take to lower your chances of catching the virus, including wearing a mask and keeping your distance from others. If you’re feeling sick in any way, you should stay home.
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.