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Protesting? Here's How To Help Keep Your Family Safe From COVID-19 When You Go Home

For the many Americans who have been protesting for racial equity and and an end to police brutality, there's a risk they've been exposed to coronavirus — and could bring the virus home to loved ones. Luckily there are smart ways to mitigate those risks.
Katherine Frey
The Washington Post via Getty Images
For the many Americans who have been protesting for racial equity and and an end to police brutality, there's a risk they've been exposed to coronavirus — and could bring the virus home to loved ones. Luckily there are smart ways to mitigate those risks.

Protesting during a pandemic likely leaves participants with at least two questions: Did I get infected? And might I be putting others at risk?

Given that COVID-19 has an incubation time of up to two weeks, experts say it will take a couple of weeks before the impact of the protests on community transmission is known. But in the meantime, there are critical steps you can take to minimize the risks to yourself and those you live with.

Those steps should begin before you even head out, says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.

If you live with others, she says, "you really have to do a risk calculation about who you're living with, who you care for, what your job might be." That's because it's hard to keep a safe distance in large crowds, and often protests involve other high-risk activities like singing and chanting, which can spread the virus. If your household includes vulnerable people, such as an elderly grandparent or someone who is immunocompromised, she says, consider an alternate form of protest – like a car caravan.

Like many public health experts, including those at the World Health Organization, Pierre, who is African American, says she thinks the demonstrations are necessary, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

"COVID has fed off the pandemic of racism," she says, noting that the coronavirus has taken adisproportionate toll on black and brown communities. But she says, even so, that those who choose to demonstrate need to realize that "it's not just your life that you're potentially jeopardizing."

If you've been at a protest recently, or still are going out, here's how to protect those you live with.

Wash up

If you have been out demonstrating, the first thing you should do once you're back home is to take a shower, and throw your clothes in laundry basket or washing machine, advises Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, a biosecurity fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who is currently working with the city of San Francisco on its COVID-19 response.

Get tested

Kuppalli also recommends getting tested for the coronavirus if possible five to seven days after protesting – the median incubation time for the virus. Some cities, including Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis, are offering free tests for protesters.

However, if the test comes back negative but you are experiencing symptoms, don't assume you are scot-free, Kuppalli says, since tests can produce false negatives. "If they continue to not feel well, they need to go back and get re-evaluated and get tested" because it's possible the test wasn't done properly or they didn't have high enough levels of the virus at the time for the test to detect, she says.

Socially distance from people at home

Especially if you can't get tested, try to maintain social distance from those you live with for up to two weeks — "particularly if they're older than 50 years of age or have chronic illnesses," says Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute at University of New South Wales in Australia. "The more distance you can keep, the more protective. "

"Don't sit on the couch next to people when you're watching television. Don't eat at the table [with them]," she says. Use household disinfectant on frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and faucet handles, she advises, and keep windows open for better air ventilation so that any infected droplets you might be emitting while speaking or breathing don't linger in the air.

Wear masks, yes, indoors

As uncomfortable as it might be, it's also a good idea to wear a mask in the house when you're around others, MacIntyre says, even if you are feeling fine, since research suggests people can be most infectious right before and during the time they start showing symptoms. If you live with a person at high risk of severe disease with COVID-19 because of age or underlying medical conditions, try to get them to wear a mask too, she suggests.

Last month, MacIntyre published a study that found these measures – household disinfection, mask wearing, and maintaining a distance of at least 3 feet from others you live with (though 6 feet or more is better) – can significantly reduce the chance that an infected person will spread the coronavirus to others they live with, even in crowded households.

"So even if you live in a small apartment, with lots of people, you can still prevent infection by following all those hygiene precautions," she says.

Hold off on hugs

One last tip, from Pierre: "No hugs, no kisses, no physical intimacy for a 10-to-14-day period, especially if you cannot get tested. I know it sounds harsh, but this is the risk calculation that we want to make."

"Even though the social changes that we're hoping to enact are incredibly important," Pierre says, "we do not wish to destabilize our households or communities" – especially given that many of the protesters are people of color. "Marginalized communities have already been destabilized by COVID-19. We cannot risk that."

Staying safe starts when you're on the streets

To prevent infection and keep your loved ones safe, take precautions while protesting. Pierre advises that you wear a mask and eye protection, like ski or swim goggles, because the virus can spread through the mucous membranes in your eyes. Even sunglasses "are better than nothing," she says – especially if they wrap around the sides of the eyes.

Bring hand sanitizer and use it often, she says, and try to stay 6 feet away from others – or at least 3 feet if possible, since research has found that even that distance can help cut transmission of the virus. And if you find you can no longer maintain social distance, it's time to leave, says Pierre. That's what she did at a protest she attended when standing at the periphery was no longer possible, she says. "I unfortunately had to remove myself from the protest because I do care for vulnerable patients at work."

But as the mother of 2-year-old twin black boys, Pierre says the movement is urgently needed. "It can be a blink of an eye before they're Tamir Rice's age when he died. It's going to be a blink of an eye before they're Trayvon Martin's age."

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Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.