Across the country, recent unsettling events have led to demonstrations and protests against systemic racism. Many members of the MIT Community have wondered how they can participate in these events safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are guidelines and recommendations for reducing your risk of contracting COVID-19 while participating in a demonstration.
Being fully vaccinated reduces, but does not eliminate, your risk of contracting COVID-19
As the pace of vaccinations increases, it’s true that you’re likely to encounter more vaccinated people at a protest march. But precautions are still vital: While vaccines significantly lower an individual’s chances of contracting severe COVID-19, a fully vaccinated person can still contract the illness and spread it to others.
The best ways to protect yourself and others during a protest continue to be masks and, to the extent possible, social distancing.
Consider the fit and quality of your mask
While your risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors is significantly lower, wearing a multi-layered, well-fitting mask will lower this risk even more. Choose a mask that fits snugly to your face, covering the chin, mouth and nose up to the nose bridge, with no gaps or openings along the sides of the mask. If you don’t feel like your current mask fits well enough, consider layering a surgical mask underneath. According to Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s director of student health, “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 masks in proper positions would increase safety for everyone.”
Keeping your distance reduces your risk
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. It’s worth considering the size of the protest. If you can, think about attending a smaller protest, rather than a large-scale event.
If you protest, consider your co-workers, labmates, or pod
It’s not enough to reduce your risk to others during a demonstration — it’s also important to consider the people you regularly encounter at work, or at home. If you choose to participate in a demonstration and are not able to properly distance, or are exposed to people who aren’t masked, it’s a good idea to self-isolate for seven days until you’ve received a negative test. If you usually work on-campus, you may want to work remotely. If you’re a student in a pod, avoid close contact, particularly eating or drinking with your podmates until a week has passed and you receive your negative test.
And, of course, if you are a Covid Pass participant, you should continue to test when prompted to do so.
COVID-19 is dangerous. But systemic racism is an equally pressing public health issue.
As a medical organization, MIT Medical is 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. As we wrote in June 2020, 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. Black people with COVID-19 are diagnosed later, hospitalized at higher rates, and more likely to die from the illness.
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.