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Former FDA head says protests are likely to bring an uptick in COVID-19 cases

Protestors should wear masks to reduce transmission

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Photo (c) solarseven - Getty Images
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview on Friday that there’s “no question” that the protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis will lead to the transmission of coronavirus cases. 

“We’re certainly going to see transmissions coming out of these gatherings, there’s no question about that,” Gottlieb said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He added that the prevalence of coronavirus infection in the U.S. is currently about one in every 200 people. 

Demonstrators can take several precautions to reduce the risk of spreading or catching the virus, he said, noting that reducing the risk from these protests is a “shared responsibility.”

Beyond wearing masks, people participating in protests can practice social distancing and avoid coming into contact with the elderly or other vulnerable individuals. Gottlieb said law enforcement can mitigate the spread of the virus by de-escalating situations when possible.

"The protesters understood the risks, many of them,” he said. “I think that's evidenced by the fact that they wore masks and they made a judgment that they were worth the risk in terms of going out and protesting what are legitimate underlying grievances."

Reducing risk at protests

In terms of things authorities can do to reduce risk, Gottlieb said the best science comes from a recent study out of Germany involving transmission at a large outdoor festival.

“They looked at what the spread was coming out of those gatherings,” he said. “The science showed there was about a two-and-half-times increase in the rate of transmission as a result of bringing people together in large gatherings. So we have some scientific basis to understand that these kinds of settings do create risk.”

On average, symptoms of COVID-19 show up in a newly infected person about five days after contact. Gottlieb said that because of the incubation period, it’s “hard to judge” just how much of an uptick we’re going to see.  

“It’s going to take a couple of weeks,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to get a few transmission cycles out to really judge what the impact was. I think what the protesters can do is try to take precautions. Wear masks.” 

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