Health experts seek to balance community concerns and coronavirus concerns

Alan Boyle
Officials advise sticking to health guidelines during protests. (Public Health – Seattle & King County Graphic)

Public health officials for Seattle and King County today acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis sparked by last week’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other confrontations across the country — and said the continuing coronavirus pandemic is making the situation more difficult.

“We understand the difficult choices that people were faced with this past weekend,” Public Health – Seattle & King County said today in a blog posting. “Many in our community grappled with attending protests to stand up against these injustices while also wanting to keep our community safe from further spread of COVID-19.”

Officials urged residents to stick with the guidelines that they’ve been recommending for months, including the advice to wear face coverings, stay at least 6 feet away from others, and avoid large gatherings if you’re ill.

“Outdoor gatherings are lower risk than indoor gatherings,” the public health agency said in its Q&A. “The larger the gathering, and the longer you’re there, the higher the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.”

The agency said you should also “do your best to avoid situations where people are shouting or singing, as these activities can spread more virus into the air.”

Those who experience even mild respiratory symptoms — such as a cough, congestion or a runny nose — should contact their health care provider to assess the need for COVID-19 testing. A variety of low-cost to no-cost testing sites are open in the Seattle area.

The protests aren’t expected to affect King County’s plans to seek to ease restrictions on businesses in accordance with the state’s Safe Start guidelines.

Public health officials also condemned Floyd’s killing at the hands of police officers, and drew attention to the wider issues of social justice and equity.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

“The actions of these police officers are unconscionable and so blatantly racist, the outrage is justified,” Patty Hayes, director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in a series of tweets. “I stand with our communities of color, our neighbors and my friends who continue to experience these atrocities and unbelievable trauma.  We can’t let COVID-19 distract us from our resolve. Let us join together in King County and show how it is possible to break down the historical institutional racism that affects our communities every day.”

It could take a couple of weeks to assess the protests’ impact on the spread of COVID-19. Current statistics relating to cases and deaths have been trending in the right direction, although King County’s testing capabilities are still falling short of target levels.

Washington state’s tally shows 1,124 COVID-19 deaths to date, with 569 of those deaths recorded in King County. Cumulative confirmed cases amounted to 21,977 statewide as of Sunday, with 8,123 cases in King County.

Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard shows 1.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 105,000 deaths in the United States. The worldwide death toll has passed the 375,000 mark.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects the U.S. death toll rising to 135,109 by Aug. 4. Another closely watched computer model, maintained by data scientist Youyang Gu, anticipates a higher toll of 164,070 by that time.

The difference between those two projections is that the IHME model calls for a gradual decline that continues into August, while Gu’s model projects an increase in the daily death rate that starts in mid-June and peaks on Aug. 5.

Update for 8:36 p.m. PT June 2: Trevor Bedford, a biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking the outbreak for months, weighed in on some of the trickier issues relating to the protests.

For example, outdoor environments are healthier than indoor environments — but closely packed crowds and jail cells are worse for spreading the virus than your typical office. And for epidemiological purposes, should you tell public health officials you’ve been at a protest?

Here’s the Twitter thread in which Bedford tackles those subjects and more:

More from GeekWire: