Montgomery County health officer advises protesters to take precautions

Peaceful demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards at the Bethesda Library on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

The lead health officer for Montgomery County, Maryland, advised protesters to be as safe as possible when gathered in large crowds, and said the county is keeping a watchful eye on a possible uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“There’s a reason why people are protesting; there’s a reason why they’re gathering,” said Dr. Travis Gayles. “The reason and passion that people are advocating and bringing their energy to these gatherings is shaped by a lot of different things — it’s shaped by recent events that have happened related to how police interact with communities, but those events are informed by numerous other incidents over the past several years.”

The widespread protests began after the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last week. The officer accused in Floyd’s killing, Derek Chauvin, was caught on video and subsequently fired from the police department. He now faces a second-degree murder charge, and three other officers, who were at the scene, were also fired and have been newly charged.

Gayles said that although he understood the need to protest, he worried about the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who were protesting, especially in minority communities.

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“When we look at our data and see black and brown folk disproportionately having higher rates of COVID-19, and black residents in our county and across the country having higher fatality rates related to COVID-19, which are informed by long-standing health disparities that have been present for decades,” Gayles said.

He had advice for protesters: Wear masks, cut down on yelling — which spreads droplets that can carry the novel coronavirus — wash hands as much as possible and stay hydrated.

In an interview with MyMCMedia, Capt. Thomas Jordan with Montgomery County police said the department supported the peaceful demonstrations.

“The people that are protesting or demonstrating — they have a message and they want to be heard and we fully support that,” Jordan said. “We fully support the constitutional rights that you have — the First Amendment right to exercise that freedom of speech.”

Contact tracing for cases of COVID-19 stemming from the protests would be difficult, Gayles said, because it requires those who have been infected to give a list of others they have been in immediate contact with.

Gayles said an interviewer asked him if he was concerned that the protests would mean higher rates of the virus appearing in minority communities.

“They already are, unfortunately,” Gayles said. “The reality is that, again, when you look at the numbers, COVID-19 cases are disproportionately in many of the communities that are protesting. And you have to ask yourself, ‘How is this all tied together?'”

“I say all of that to say that the public health response has to deal with the short-term — in terms of infection control — but we also have to deal with the long-term consequences to understand how those particular factors and drivers have contributed to long-standing disparities and preexisting conditions that have set certain communities up to be disproportionately impacted,” he said.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he has been pleased with the county’s progress in reopening so far.

Elrich said he would not give specifics about what Phase Two and Three may look like in the county until they were closer to announcing a date when those phases could begin.

Elrich also said that the county now had the ability to test up to 5% of the county’s population each month, and that 65,000 people had been tested countywide since the outbreak began.

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