As the U.S. erupted in protest over the weekend in response to the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, health officials are warning that mass gatherings will likely exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak in the most vulnerable communities.
The protests come as schools and businesses across the country have been closed for months in a bid to keep people home and curb the spread of the virus. The coronavirus has now infected more than 1.7 million people across the U.S. and killed at least 104,383, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of challenges coming out of the events of the past week,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in an interview on “Squawk Box” on Monday. “One of them’s going to be that probably chains of transmission will have gotten lit by large gatherings. I don’t think there’s really a question about that.”
The protests, which were sparked after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd a week ago by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest, present a particular threat to Minnesota, which was already struggling with an uncontrolled outbreak, Gottlieb said.
While some states, including those hardest hit by Covid-19 such as New York and New Jersey, have managed to drive the outbreak into decline, Gottlieb said Minnesota’s is “expanding” with hospitalizations on the rise.
City and state officials across the country echoed Gottlieb’s concerns over the weekend, calling for protesters to get tested and continue to practice social distancing. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told CNN on Sunday that there’s “no question” the protests will lead to spread of the virus, but that’s the “next step” for officials after quelling the protests and violence.
“If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a Covid test this week,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Saturday at a news conference. “There is still a pandemic in America that’s killing black and brown people at higher numbers.”
Black Americans make up a disproportionate share of the deaths in the U.S. caused by the coronavirus as underlying conditions, income inequality and disparity in access to health care have exacerbated the outbreak for them.
“When you look at Covid generally, it’s very heavily disproportionately impacted people from lower economic groups and also black Americans and Hispanic Americans,” Gottlieb said. “This disease has disproportionately affected those communities for a host of reasons, and the fact that the protests took part in large measure in the same communities I think is going to exacerbate the strains on these communities.”
States have moved in recent weeks to ease restrictions meant to limit the spread of the virus. Officials have shown particular willingness to reopen beaches, parks and other outdoor sites and businesses as some research indicates that the virus does not spread as easily outdoors. However, Gottlieb said the protests are a markedly different environment than beaches and parks, where people are perhaps more willing to practice precautions.
“This isn’t a day at the beach or going out to a picnic where you’re outside and you might be in larger groups but there’s some social distancing and you’re able to take some precautions,” he said. “In these kinds of gatherings, in these kinds of crowds, many of which lost control of the crowds, you’re not going to be able to take those kinds of precautions.”
Without widespread testing, epidemiologists are unlikely to know how broadly the virus spread for several weeks as those infected develop symptoms, seek testing and wait for results.
“There’s no questions that it’s one of the risks coming out of the past week,” Gottlieb said.
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer and biotech company Illumina.