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Is It Safe To Protest Amid COVID-19? Infectious Disease Doctor Says, Without Changes, Not Really

Protesters hold up their fists outside the state house. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Protesters hold up their fists outside the state house. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Cassandra Pierre wasn’t at either of the protests in Boston Sunday — but she wishes she could have been.

Pierre had her hands full at Boston Medical Center, where she’s an infectious disease physician and the associate hospital epidemiologist. She’s also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, and much of her research focuses on infection prevention in vulnerable populations.

Dr. Pierre is black, and some of her family members turned out to protest. She explained that watching the protests from afar, she had two thoughts going off in her mind simultaneously — like an alarm.

She spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins. Here are her remarks, lightly edited.

Pierre’s thoughts on the significance of the protests — and the risks they present amid the pandemic

“[The protest] needs to happen. … We have seen countless cycles of violence and oppression, and we need to give voice to the sense of powerlessness, give the sense of disenfranchisement. We need government to understand what is happening to us. We need to enact social change.

“But the other side… is worried about what I see — people gathering close together, sometimes wearing masks, sometimes not. And the reality of a protest is that … it is quite a risk. It is a risk for COVID-19. It is a risk that is impacting the same communities, unfortunately, that are disproportionately being affected, as we know, by COVID-19.”

On just how risky the protests are, given that some people wore masks and they’re held outdoors

“The fact that you’re outside, it might be a space that’s better ventilated. Unfortunately,  it does not mitigate against the risk of being in close proximity — within six feet, for considerable periods of time … with others … who are, by virtue of protesting, maybe shouting, maybe yelling, maybe be chanting and singing.

“All of these things are likely to disperse respiratory droplets. It is a potential for, unfortunately, an effective transmission chain for COVID-19 and masks alone, unfortunately, are not enough to prevent that chain of transmission.”

On what she told members of her family who attended the protests — and whether she thinks it’s even possible to safely protest right now

I wish that … we could have this little bubble around ourselves and say, ‘OK, please don’t enter my bubble’ to anyone else who’s protesting. We know that’s not doable. And so the family members who have been involved have been on the periphery — so that they could physically distance themselves. A given protester may not always be able to do that.

“And really, in those situations, we are asking for strong leadership within our communities. So the communities who are organizing these protests, we would really love to see … marshals who were able to go there on the ground and help the process of physically distancing, help people to stay safe many different ways — safe from violence, safe from unfair policing, safe from making sure that people are … wearing their masks whenever possible.

“The things that I’m concerned about are people are really, understandably, taking risks, because they want to be part of this movement. It’s important for us. I’m a black woman. I’m a woman who has black children, black boys. And I feel like these protesters are working on my behalf, as well.

“But the problem is that we’re not invincible. And even if you’re young and you’re healthy, and you’re participating in this march or in these protests and you’re wearing a mask — there are other people who are impacted, potentially … by the decisions you’ve made — your parents, your grandparents, people that you live with, your social network.”

On whether the protests will have to be factored into contact tracing efforts as the state watches for another surge amid its phased reopening

“Unfortunately, yes, that is true. It may be difficult, as well, to think about how we do contact tracing for people at a rally or protest — people who may not necessarily know each other.

“I can imagine that if you have groups of people who are going out — so, small organizations that are taking part in a larger organization — then the leader for that smaller organization could theoretically be accountable in terms of, again, trying to enforce physical distancing, but also serving as a point person in case someone in that group became COVID-positive. [Then] they could inform the other people in the group that they’d been potentially exposed to someone who was infected.”

On how she has seen firsthand how COVID-19 hurts communities of color more than others, and how it feels knowing the protests could exacerbate infection rates for those very same communities

“It feels devastating … that my community has been disproportionately affected by COVID and now is dealing with the anguish and the pain and … the second trauma of brutality and, in some cases… malignant indifference to our lives.

“… The protests in our community have the potential, certainly, of exacerbating this issue — of reversing any previously won gains in reducing the curve, of flattening the curve, of reducing the trajectory of infections in communities of color.

“So the question is … How can we partner with governments, with our organizational leaders — also, how can we pull in our allies — to make this safe, as safe as we possibly can?

“Because I think that by discouraging people from going and protesting, I think we alienate ourselves further from communities of color who really see this as one of their only recourses to receive justice.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 WBUR

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