Public-health officials have been intently focused on how to re-open the U.S. economy after months-long lockdowns put in place to contain the coronavirus.

But none of them banked on having to contend with widespread social upheaval caused by the death of George Floyd, which has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets and into close contact in cities across the country to protest police violence.

The demonstrations are a new challenge to health officials’ still-early efforts to test and trace new infections, a key step to swatting down new clusters of cases. And scientists aren't of one mind on the question of how well the virus could spread in protests, which are taking place in open air, with many—but not all—participants wearing masks.

The demonstrations are also happening as restrictions lift around the country and people tire of preventive measures, which will make it harder to unpack whether new cases are caused by the demonstrations, or by behavior that would have occurred in the course of a calmer reopening.

“Protests and large gatherings make it difficult to maintain our recommended social-distancing guidelines and may put others at risk,’’ said Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s too early to know what, if any, effect these events will have on the federal Covid-19 response.”

Though it may take weeks for new cases to begin to show up in the data, and while a definitive answer on transmissions will be difficult to establish, top officials leading the U.S. response to the pandemic have expressed concern about the situation. Many of the protesters are black and other people of color, groups that have been harder-hit by the virus than white populations.

“I do worry,” said Deborah Birx, a medical officer on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “I worry terribly about the peaceful protests,” she said this week. “We are really trying to work with each of the mayors to expand testing availability over the next week or two so that the individuals who are involved in the peaceful protests can get tested and really know their status before they unknowingly spread it to the elderly.”

‘Wait And See’
The topic is fraught, with some officials struggling to address the health risks without dismissing the protests. The CDC declined to have an official discuss it, as did the Mayo Clinic, one of the premier U.S. academic medical institutions. Anthony Fauci, the head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the leaders of the U.S.’s response, side-stepped the subject during an online interview this week when he was asked about the protests and efforts to re-open states.

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