The storming of the U.S. Capitol last week by thousands of mask-less protesters was likely a coronavirus “surge event,” according to Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
His statement comes as at least two members of Congress have since announced that they have tested positive for the virus, which has already infected at least 22.5 million and killed 375,000 in the United States over the past eleven months of the pandemic.
In recent weeks, average daily new cases are up by at least 5 percent in forty-seven states, Johns Hopkins University data show.
“I do think you have to anticipate that this is another surge event,” Redfield said in an interview with the McClatchy news agency.
“You had largely unmasked individuals in a non-distanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol. Then these individuals all are going in cars and trains and planes going home all across the country right now. So, I do think this is an event that will probably lead to a significant spreading event. This is an event that is going to have public health consequences.”
Plenty of other medical experts have also expressed concerns that the riot was indeed a coronavirus “super-spreader event,” in which thousands of new cases will likely result and place even more strain on hospitals that are at or near capacity.
“Clearly, this could be a super-spreader event because of the number of people in close proximity, vocalizing loudly, potentially aerosolizing more virus, and the lack of masks on a sizable percentage of the participants,” Dr. Wes Van Voorhis, professor of allergy and infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Center for Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases, told me.
Added Dr. Ryan Demmer, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota: “Any event, in which hundreds of unmasked people are in close physical contact for long durations of time, has the potential to accelerate infection spread.”
Dr. Lee Riley, professor and chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed with that assessment but added that what “took place before the invasion of the Capitol building itself was a bigger super-spreader event.”
“There were many more mask-less people in the rally than those who rioted afterwards,” he explained. “These people came from all over the country, so the ones who got infected during the rally and the riot will now spread the infection in communities where they came from. And many will die from this super-spreader event—even those people who didn’t participate in the rally or the riot.”
“It is very possible that the occupation of the U.S. Capitol could result in transmission of many cases of COVID-19,” he noted.
“It was a crowded indoor environment—small particle aerosols can remain suspended for three to four hours—and very few of the individuals appeared to be wearing face coverings.”
Redfield and other medical experts noted that contact tracing will be nearly impossible, as the protesters came from all across the country and only a few of them have been identified.
“Contact tracing efforts are crucial in determining extent of spread and notifying potentially exposed individuals so that they can seek testing and quarantine to prevent further spread,” Dr. Pavitra Roychoudhury, instructor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington, explained to me.
“Even without contact tracing, anyone who attended events like these should seek testing and/or quarantine themselves to prevent further transmission.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.