Analysis: Masks may have prevented virus spread in protests

June 28, 2020 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Underpinning protests against racial injustice in New Orleans earlier this month was a fear that the demonstrations, however necessary to raise public consciousness, would endanger public health in a city and state that had been hot spots for the new coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise in Louisiana and other states as restrictions on public gatherings and businesses have eased. But fears that the New Orleans protests — launched after the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — would contribute significantly to major coronavirus clusters have proven unfounded so far.


Dr. Joseph Kanter, director of the state health department region that includes New Orleans, said Thursday that of the recent positive cases in the area, only a few were among people who attended the protests.

“We’re now a couple of weeks out,” Kanter said of protests that began in late May and extended into early June. “We have not seen a spike in cases for New Orleans. ... We’ve not yet seen any indication that the protests have contributed significantly to COVID cases.”

There are some caveats here. Testing continues, as does daily analysis of data. The picture may change.

Still, for now, it is a bit of good news — first touted by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the city health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno — as cases rise and hospitalizations, once on a steady downward trend, appeared to be ticking up again.

If the numbers hold up under further analyses, the New Orleans protests will be cited as examples of what health officials in Louisiana and nationwide have been saying: outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings, and wearing masks — face coverings were in full evidence during the demonstrations — helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Any crowd is a risk. There is no question about that,” Kanter said. “But, you’re safer when you’re outdoors, and you’re safer when you wear a mask.”

If protesters in New Orleans in early June were being mindful of masking, it also appears that many young people with less weighty matters on their minds have not been. Roughly 100 cases have recently been traced to college bars in Baton Rouge, and roughly 25 to 30 cases, Kanter said, have been traced to graduation parties in the New Orleans area.

“There seems to be either a lack of understanding or a lack of responsibility among many of our young people and in some cases their parents who are aware of their actions,” Avegno said Wednesday.


Gov. John Bel Edwards noted at a news conference in Baton Rouge that significant percentages of young people are among the more than 53,000 confirmed cases recorded since March. State health department figures show there have been more than 2,500 confirmed cases in Louisiana in people under 18; more than 9,500 among those 18-29 and more than 8,600 in the 30-39 age range. Those between from 40 to 49 accounted for more than 8,400; 50-59, more than 8,600; 60-69, more than 7,100; 70 and older, more than 8,100.

The vast majority of people who get infected with the new coronavirus recover. For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

It has been a factor in more than 3,000 deaths in Louisiana since March, according to the state health department.

That the vast majority of deaths have been among those over 70, with very few among those under 30, may contribute to young people being less heedful of social distancing and mask-wearing advice.

Still, the disease is highly contagious. The fear among state health officials — especially if hospitalizations continue to tick up while mask-wearing fatigue grows — is twofold.

First, as Edwards said Wednesday, while young people appear to be least vulnerable to the disease, they aren’t invincible. Some, especially those with unknown underlying health conditions, could suffer.

Second, as Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, said, “It’s going to start in young people and it’s going to get over to the vulnerable population.


EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.