Disease and Racial Injustice Put Public Health Goals at Odds in NYC

A pedestrian photographs a smashed window Monday at a Dolce and Gabbana store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Protesters broke into the store Sunday night in reaction to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Focused on pandemic response as much as racism, New York City epidemiologists warned Monday that protests over the police killing of an unarmed black man can cause Covid-19 infections to surge in the same minority groups fighting for justice.

“I’m 100% sure that it will increase the cases the next few weeks,” Kitaw Demissie, dean and professor at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University School of Public Health, said of the weekend’s protests.

“In two weeks, we’ll see more cases,” Demissie said in a phone interview Monday. “Another two weeks after that, we’ll see an increase in deaths from Covid-19. … I’m confident that will happen.” 

In New York City, where the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has hit hardest, blacks and Hispanics are dying of at twice the rate of their white and Asian neighbors. 

The area has endured one of the country’s strictest lockdowns this spring to slow the virus’s spread, but this weekend it looked like many others across the country protesting the fatal arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis, even after the charges were brought against the police officer seen kneeling on his neck in a video of the killing that has gone viral. 

This weekend, cities where protests became violent experienced looting, fires, and violent clashes with police. With 200,830 cases of Covid-19 in their city, as well as 21,607 confirmed and probable deaths from the virus, New York City officials joined many others Monday in setting a curfew from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m.

But epidemiologists like Demissie also emphasize that Floyd’s death raises its problems from a public health standpoint. “Racism, structural racism and police brutality are definitely a public health issue, and a public health problem in this country for a long time,” Demissie said.

The point is one shard by Dustin Duncan, a Columbia epidemiologist.

“These dual pandemics of Covid infection and mortality, and disparities and structural inequalities and racism coexist,” Duncan said in a phone interview Monday.

“And so while I, as an epidemiologist, a person who cares about humanity, I’m concerned for people getting infected with Covid … I’m also concerned about racism, and the persistence of racism in American society,” he added.

Both Demissie and Duncan are black.

Since coronavirus has a roughly two-week incubation period, any cases spread through the protests might not appear by the time New York City officially enters Phase 1 of reopening, expected next Monday, June 8. 

“In terms of impact on our reopening, I see none,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday of the protests. His 25-year-old daughter Chiara was among the protestors arrested over the weekend. 

Duncan said the June 8 reopening timeline was too soon, anyway.

“I think from a health standpoint, we’re not ready” to reopen, he said in a phone interview Monday. 

In prepared remarks at his daily news briefing Monday, de Blasio did not even mention the pandemic that has been ravaging his city for months, focusing instead on the protests. While he defended the NYPD over the weekend after two police SUVs drove into a crowd of protestors, de Blasio somewhat changed his tune Monday.

“There is no situation where a police vehicle should drive into a crowd of protestors or New Yorkers of any kind,” he said. “It is dangerous, it is unexpected … There were extenuating circumstances, I believe, because of incidents that happened earlier.” He didn’t specify what those circumstances or events were, but said the incident was under investigation. 

All other regions of the state have begun their reopening processes, with some already in Phase 2. New York state counts 371,111 cases and 23,959 deaths, though that number is likely low as the state only tracks virus deaths confirmed with testing. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo also focused on the protests as well in his Monday press conference. 

“Now we’re seeing these mass gatherings over the past several nights that could in fact exacerbate the Covid-19 spread,” he said. “We’ve spent all this time closed down, locked down, masks, socially distanced. And then you turn on the TV, and you see these mass gatherings that could potentially be affecting hundreds and hundreds of people. After everything that we have done. We have to take a minute and ask ourselves, what are we doing here? What are we trying to accomplish?”

Protestors have called for racial justice, an end to police violence, the defunding of police departments, and the repeal of New York Civil Rights Law Section 50-A, which shields police officers’ disciplinary records from the public. Cuomo has said he would support a reform of the law. The NYPD has a nearly $6 billion budget. 

Demissie said public officials and community organizers should encourage social distancing and mask-wearing while demonstrating. He criticized the use of tear gas, which irritates the eyes, nose and throat and causes coughing, even as all public health guidance discourages people from touching their faces. 

If possible, those who protested last weekend should get diagnostic testing for the virus and isolate themselves as much as possible in the coming weeks, though testing facilities are more difficult to access in minority neighborhoods, he added. New York officials have also urged protesters to get tested. 

“To say that they shouldn’t have done this, they shouldn’t have gone out and, you know, protested, it’s very difficult — you know, having seen the image that somebody’s putting their knees, entire body on somebody’s neck,” Demissie said, referencing Floyd’s death. 

“But I think it is important at the same time, you know, to realize that this is another killer that we’re dealing with.”

Demissie cited the 1918 Spanish flu, which was accelerated in Philadelphia by a parade. 

“Most of the demonstrations in the protests are heavily weighted, although all races are participating, but you see a lot of minority population in these protests,” Demissie said. 

The disease is spread through respiratory droplets such as through sneezes, coughs, breath, and talking or shouting. Though some recent studies have shown outdoor transmission of the virus is less likely, people are discouraged from being in close quarters with others outside their household.

“I do believe that it’s difficult to protest while also doing the most to prevent Covid,” Duncan said, as the very nature of a protest is the antithesis of social distancing.

He said the protests “could further exacerbate infections, including potentially a second wave, but at the same time, also deepening health disparities” if black and Hispanic New Yorkers, who seem to have been well-represented at weekend protests, bring the virus back home, he said. 

But both Duncan and Demissie said it was impossible to disentangle the weekend’s protests from the disparate public health risks and outcomes that black Americans already face. 

“What I think is most compelling is the people who are at highest risk of not just becoming infected, but also having the negative consequences of Covid, are the ones putting themselves in a situation to get Covid, because they’re so fed up,” said Duncan. “That speaks to how unjust I believe our society is against people of color, in every single way. Health is just one example.”

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