Protesters and coronavirus: Bay Area health officials brace for spike in cases

As thousands of people take to the streets to protest systematic racism and police brutality in the Bay Area and nationwide, public health officials are raising alarms over a looming surge in coronavirus cases.

Counties are urging people to get tested within at least five days of attending their last protest. San Francisco opened a pop-up testing site Friday at St. Mary’s Cathedral for demonstrators concerned about their potential exposure during the recent days of unrest and protests, even if they aren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“I think everyone in public health is concerned,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, San Francisco’s health officer.

“The risk depends on how many people in the crowd are carrying the coronavirus,” he said. “If very few people are carrying, you’re probably going to be fine. But we don’t know, and that’s the problem. The few people that might have it, they’re the ones you hope wear their mask.”

Over the past week, thousands of people have spilled onto the streets to demand accountability from police departments after George Floyd, a black man, died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. One officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes in an episode captured on video.

Many people wore masks at protests in Oakland and San Francisco. But social distancing was nearly impossible among the masses. People held their fists in the air, shouted Floyd’s name and chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”

Jada Cabie, 19, was among the hundreds of protesters who gathered Friday to demand justice for a 22-year-old man who was killed by Vallejo police on Tuesday. Cabie used hand sanitizer and wore a face mask, but said the pandemic wasn’t going to stop her from the historic protests.

“Corona is not going to stop us from bringing justice,” she said. “I just feel so compelled to be a part of this.”

San Francisco health officials are bracing for a possible spike in virus cases after thousands marched in George Floyd protests.

Julie Molitor, a nurse at the emergency department at San Francisco General Hospital, said she worries about the masses gathering together because of the lack of bed capacity at the hospital.

“All of this stuff I’m seeing is scary,” she said.

On Friday, none of the 212 beds was available. The hospital is over capacity due to postponed surgeries and procedures that were pushed off while staff prepared for the coronavirus response, said Brent Andrew, a spokesman for the hospital.

Earlier in the week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said a surge in coronavirus positive cases is imminent after nearly 10 days of protests.

“If you’re not (concerned), you’re not paying attention to the epidemiology, to the virulence of this disease,” Newsom said during a visit Thursday to Stockton, where he met with Mayor Michael Tubbs and business owners to discuss racism.

Still, officials said, because of the incubation period of the virus of up to two weeks, a spike is not apparent. Protests in the Bay Area began about a week ago.

California has 125,718 positive coronavirus cases and 4,525 deaths. Of those, 15,025 positive cases and 460 deaths are in the Bay Area. San Francisco has 2,698 positive cases and 43 deaths, and Alameda County has 3,725 cases and 101 deaths.

New reported cases and deaths in the Bay Area have plateaued in recent weeks but haven’t declined much.

Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, had a simple message: if people were among crowds this week, get tested.

“The virus is the same virus, and there is more virus than there was before,” he said.

A protester wears gloves and a mask, but not all at the demonstrations did.

On Friday, Newsom said the state has spent the past 100 days preparing for a resurgence of cases not necessarily because of protests, but due to the reopening of the economy. Those plans were released last month.

“Our capacity has never been greater to meet the needs,” he said.

Medical experts said increased testing capacity is key in keeping track of the virus’ spread and expressed concerns that mass demonstrations had closed some testing sites, particularly in Los Angeles, where nearly half of the government-run facilities had closed down last weekend.

In Oakland, where thousands of people have gathered every night this week, one testing site at the Kaiser Auditorium near Lake Merritt was closed. Officials said plans to reopen it are under way.

“With the decreased testing, that may decrease the finding of cases,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley. “So it could artificially make it seem like there weren’t more cases from the protests, but we anticipate there will be. That gnaws at me a little bit.”

Overall testing capacity statewide continues to increase, the California Department of Public Health said Friday.

In Alameda County, officials are planning to open a mobile testing site to travel to neighborhood hot spots, including in Oakland’s Fruitvale district and East Oakland, where communities have been hard hit by the virus.

Protestors chant “I can’t breathe” during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd outside the Municipal Services Building in South San Francisco on Thursday. Social distancing was not practiced during many protests.

Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Solano and San Mateo counties said they are not planning to alter their current testing plans because of the demonstrations. Contra Costa County encourages people to test 10 days after attending a protest.

“It would be a complete waste of time to test at or right after the protest because there will have been no time for the virus to infect you yet,” said Bela Matyas, the Solano County health officer.

Matyas also said the health department is trying to contact event organizers in advance to encourage social distancing and face coverings during the demonstrations.

Officials from Santa Clara and San Mateo are doing the same.

Molitor said San Francisco health department workers could be more proactive by stepping onto the front lines of the demonstrations and hand out face masks and flyers to remind protesters of safety measures, including social distancing.

“It’s a small city, it’s a small county,” she said. “I don’t understand why we can’t.”

Swartzberg also expressed concerns over the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police during demonstrations because it could spread the virus since it causes people to cough, rub their eyes or have runny noses.

Robert Rueca, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, said officers have not deployed pepper spray or tear gas during demonstrations despite seeing reports in the media that tear gas has been used.

“We do not know of the source or what the possible irritants are to which people have been exposed,” Rueca said.

In Oakland, City Council members have called on the Police Department to stop the use of tear gas because of the virus. Oakland police deployed tear gas to disperse curfew violators Monday, but refrained from curfew enforcement Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Interim Oakland Police Chief Susan Manheimer said that police resort to smoke bombs and tear gas only in response to “violent disrupters” and “professional agitators.”

“From the virus’ standpoint, I would be sitting there and saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing that because now I can infect more people,’” Swartzberg said. “Police were irresponsible for using pepper spray and tear gas.”

Chronicle staff writers Trisha Thadani and Anna Bauman contributed to this story.

Sarah Ravani and Dominic Fracassa are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:, Twitter: @SarRavani, @DominicFracassa

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