I’m part of MIT’s research ramp-up and will be returning soon to on-campus, socially-distanced research. As part of this process, I was tested for COVID-19 at MIT Medical last week and tested negative. But since then, I have been participating in the Black Lives Matter protests, and even though I’m wearing a mask and others are wearing masks, there are definitely moments when I am much closer to people in the crowd than I would prefer.
I have two questions:
First, I’m wondering if there are ways that protesters can stay safe from the virus right now? How can we help protesters and police officers reduce the risk of infection? I’d be interested in any insights or resources you might be able to share with members of our community.
Secondly, while I feel good about the social-distancing procedures my lab has put in place, I don’t want to put my lab mates at risk. I could be tested again, I suppose, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like false negatives are likely in the first few days after exposure to the virus. So, should I delay coming back to campus?
We want to begin by thanking you for being thoughtful and caring about your lab mates, and we also commend you for caring about the larger societal issues these protests are addressing. There has been a lot of talk about the public health risk of large gatherings like these during a time when all of us are concerned about community spread of COVID-19. But systemic racism is an equally pressing public health issue. Black people are not only nearly three times as likely to be killed by police compared to white people, they also suffer from dramatic health disparities in life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality, chronic medical conditions, and outcomes from acute illnesses. When it comes to the current pandemic in this country, we know that Black people with COVID-19 are diagnosed later, hospitalized at higher rates, and more likely to die from the illness. As a medical organization, we are naturally concerned with the health risks associated with public gatherings, but we are equally concerned with the health risks associated with institutional racism and systemic injustice.
According to Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s director of student health, the best ways to protect yourself and others during a protest are the same ways you would protect yourself at other times — namely, masks and, to the extent possible, social distancing.
“From an epidemiological point of view, masks should protect others in the crowd by collecting any respiratory droplets that are exhaled,” Ferullo says. “Of course, masks will not collect 100 percent of every particle exhaled, but studies of healthcare workers suggest that the use of masks or face coverings significantly limits the spread of the virus.”
But it is also true, he adds, that yelling and more forceful vocalization will increase the rate and force with which respiratory droplets are expelled. “Individuals who are trying to project their voice also tend to lower or remove their masks,” he notes. “This could lead to a greater projection of particles. Using bullhorns or other amplifying devices to project voices while leaving the mask in proper position would increase safety for everyone.”
While Ferullo recommends masks as the primary safety precaution for protesters and police, he also advises social distancing to the extent possible. “The six-foot social-distancing guidelines from the CDC assume that people are not wearing face coverings,” he notes. “That said, we do not know how much closer people can safely be if they are wearing masks, so we continue to advise people to stay six feet apart regardless.” This can be difficult during a protest march, he acknowledges, but in addition to aiming for a six-foot distance between yourself and others, it can be useful to try to stay with a small group of close contacts rather than mingling with lots of different groups.
Additional safety suggestions for protesters, police, local governments, and community supporters can be found in this open letter signed by nearly 1,300 public health professionals, infectious diseases specialists, and community stakeholders.
As far as your questions about testing and safely returning to your lab, you are correct that it can take up to seven days after exposure to the virus before an individual will test positive on the nasal PCR test.
The most conservative approach would be for you to delay returning to campus and work remotely until you’ve had 14 symptom-free days from the date of the last protest you attended. However, it’s also important to remember that the social distancing, masking, and other safety protocols that have been set up in your lab are designed to prevent the unintentional spread of the virus by any individual who may be positive for the virus but unaware of their status. If followed to the letter, those safety protocols should protect everyone in the lab. You should also remember that MIT Medical is able to provide rapid testing for you or anyone else who shows symptoms of the virus.
Thank you again for your thoughtful questions and for being part of this important struggle to make our country and our world a better place.