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For many protesters, the cause outweighs virus risk. Doctors are concerned.

“On the street, there may be a sense that the risk isn’t that great, but the risk is great.”

Health experts are watching with concern as protests over police brutality continue to erupt across Tampa Bay amid the coronavirus pandemic, and as more positive cases in the area are reported each day.

The gatherings often draw hundreds who march and chant in close proximity despite recommendations for social distancing. And doctors say they expect to see a spike in COVID-19 infections weeks from now that will trace back to the demonstrations, which could send a wave of new infections through the region.

“I’m very concerned,” said Marc Yacht, former director of the Pasco County Department of Health. “People are mad, and rightly so. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re still going through COVID-19."

Protesters say the risk of gathering is worth it. Even while some wear masks, the pandemic is far from their minds. Some said in interviews that the duty they feel to speak out against racial injustice and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police May 25 outweighs fears of contracting the virus.

“I don’t want to hear about the pandemic," said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP. "I want to hear why police officers keep killing black people.” [ BORCHUCK, JAMES | Times ]

“We’re dying anyway,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP. “We can be out in a pandemic or the police can continue to kill us. Which is our best pick?”

Protesters in St. Petersburg this week shared similar sentiments. Monday was the first time in months that Aly Miranda, 22, left her house for anywhere but the grocery store, she said. Though she is asthmatic and at high risk for getting sick, she said she couldn’t sit back and stay silent while others marched through city streets.

“Black people have been dying a lot longer than the coronavirus has been around,” said Miranda, who is white. “I see black people having to fear for their lives every single day when they leave the house. Right now, I need to risk my life for them.”

Protests create a “ripe environment” for transmission of the coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Chang, vice president of care transitions at Tampa General Hospital. People are close together, often yelling, which sends droplets of saliva and sometimes even lung fluid floating through the air.

Dr. Peter Chang [Tampa General Hospital]

At the same time, there is little airflow within the crowds, so oxygen potentially carrying infection recirculates again and again, said Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at the University of South Florida. Irritants like tear gas and pepper spray, which cause coughing and sneezing, make conditions worse.

Another problem is that many protesters are young and not in the groups labeled as vulnerable to the coronavirus, so they could be carrying the disease unknowingly because they aren’t experiencing symptoms.

“On the street, there may be a sense that the risk isn’t that great, but the risk is great,” said Yacht, the former health department director. “They could bring it home to their parents or grandparents ... and put others at risk that have medical issues that make them more susceptible.”

Local health departments are encouraging protesters to keep in mind recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like social distancing, masks and hand-washing. But doctors know it’s not realistic to expect universal compliance, said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist and assistant dean for the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“People want to be close to each other ... so they can be counted and be heard,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotion around this, of course, and I think that makes it hard to keep in mind the basic precautions.”

At a protest in St. Petersburg on Monday, Jake Gerow-Wyandt, 21, said he doesn’t care if he gets the virus. He said he hasn’t thought once about the 6-foot rule while chanting outside the city police department.

“This issue is so much more important,” he said, adding that the killing of black men by police “cannot stand. It has to change."

“The world can’t stop because of the coronavirus," said Rachel Silverboard, an 18-year-old from Largo. “We have issues going on ... and the sense of community being here in numbers is really powerful.”

Yacht said he expects protests to continue, and even escalate, until government leaders level with demonstrators and work with them to find solutions. Messaging from officials should be calm and empathetic, not aggressive fuel to the fire, he said, and maybe then crowds will thin.

There is still so much division, said Lewis, the NAACP president. So the pandemic will continue take a back seat to the protests until demonstrators see that the city is working with and not against them.

“It’s at the point where people just don’t want to take it anymore," she said. “I don’t want to hear about the pandemic. I want to hear why police officers keep killing black people.”

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