ALBANY — Tens of thousands of people have swarmed to demonstrations condemning police brutality and systemic racism across the Capital Region over the past two weeks.
But the rallies have experts and local officials worried about an increase in COVID-19 infections, compounding the dueling challengesl gripping the nation.
“From purely a pandemic standpoint, the protests are really not going to help slow the spread,” said Dr. Brittany L. Kmush, an assistant professor at the Department of Public Health at Syracuse University’s Falk College.
Large-scale demonstrations have seen protesters stand cheek-to-jowl for hours.
Most are masked, but others are not.
Gatherings featuring people shouting and breathing heavily in close proximity to each other increases the risk of transmission, Kmush said.
And while cloth masks are effective in preventing infectious people from spreading the virus to others through large respiratory droplets, they’re not a bulletproof way to prevent the wearer from becoming infected themselves.
“You did a good job protecting others, but it doesn’t mean you were protecting yourself,” said Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s public health commissioner, on Tuesday.
Whalen is among the local officials urging anyone who attended a protest to get tested, a measure echoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“One person in a crowd of 100 people can infect dozens,” Cuomo said. “We’ve seen it.”
Officials acknowledge an uptick could stymie progress in containing the virus and result in a rollback of the state’s phased-in reopening strategy, which saw New York City enter Phase 1 on Tuesday.
“We won’t really know the effect of these protests going on for 14 days,” said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy last week. “It could affect us and slow us down. I hope it doesn’t.”
Barring a setback, the Capital Region is poised to enter Phase 3 on June 17, which would allow for limited dine-in service at bars and restaurants, as well as the reopening of nail salons, tattoo parlors and other industries.
Demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 have mushroomed in the Capital Region since late-May, with a rally drawing 11,000 in Troy on Sunday.
Organizers in Albany, Schenectady and Troy said they have no plans to let up the pressure.
The incubation period for the virus is two weeks, which means authorities may see spikes by the end of the week as people start to present symptoms.
But the virus often presents itself as asymptomatic in young people, Whalen said, which underscores the need for everyone who attended a protest to get tested in order to prevent unwittingly spreading the virus throughout the community, including senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems.
People in their 20s in Albany County have surpassed those in their 50s as the top demographic for those who have tested positive for the virus.
“That number continues to grow and I’ve been fixated on that because of the spread,” Whalen said.
Cuomo ordered 15 new testing sites specifically for protesters, all of them located in New York City.
Testing is available locally in the Capital Region at sites facilitated by Ellis Medicine and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Health Center in Albany, among others.
Ellis Medicine tested 86 people at its McClellan Street Health Center last Thursday.
Of those, just 5 percent disclosed they attended demonstrations.
The number could be higher.
“When people come through, there’s a number of screening questions we ask,” said Ellis Medicine spokesman Philip Schwartz. “We don’t ask if they’ve been protesting … it’s just not a data point that we’ve been collecting.”
But because of the two-week incubation period, Ellis expects a higher turnout at Thursday’s weekly testing.
Whitney Young Health, too, had scant data.
Officials track a number of reasons people are being tested at locations in Albany and Rensselaer counties, ranging from people who are symptomatic, essential workers, employees who are returning to work in Phase 2 who are required to be tested, among others.
“The field is somewhat unreliable because someone could be symptomatic, but also have attended a protest and didn’t indicate that when registering,” said Heather Burdo, a spokesperson.
Data also reveals a disproportionate number of those hospitalized and ICU patients in Albany County are black, said Whalen, who has reached out to community leaders to continue to discuss how to eliminate barriers to receiving health care and getting tested.
Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman, too, is pushing testing.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do to go out and protest peacefully, but remember the action of being together in such a large group technically is a mass gathering,” Fluman said on Tuesday.
Kmush acknowledged the gradual normalization of large-scale protests may lead to others lowering their guards when it comes to adhering to social distancing protocols.
“We’ll have to really watch the trends over the next few weeks,” Kmush said.
WHERE TO GET TESTED
In Albany, appointment-free testing will be available at the Capital South Campus site on Wednesday for first responders and individuals who have participated in recent protests and rallies. Those who have insurance are asked to provide ID and proof of insurance. For those without insurance, testing is free.
People can also call Whitney M. Young, Jr’s main number at 518-465-4771, where they will be screened for eligibility. If eligible, people will be steered to a specific location depending on their location.
Testing is ongoing in Rotterdam Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Rotterdam Walmart at 1320 Altamont Ave; Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Ellis’ McClellan Street Health Center and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hometown Health Centers, where people can call 518-688-3420 to schedule an appointment.
For a full list of testing locations, visit https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/find-test-site-near-you