Protesters say racism worse than COVID-19 but health officials worry of further spread amid marches

ATLANTA — An Athens commissioner has an urgent message for demonstrators who may have marched alongside others: Get tested for COVID-19.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker said she tested positive for the virus following a rally on Sunday.

That type of incident is one of the biggest concerns for health officials as they watch protests unfold across the Atlanta metro and the rest of the country over the death of George Floyd.

Parker told Channel 2 anchor Sophia Choi that she marched alongside thousands of people over the weekend in a rally that she helped organize. She told Choi that she felt no symptoms.

"I've been asymptomatic after being around a couple thousand people on Sunday. I decided to get checked out,” Parker said.

The commissioner said she was wearing a mask at the time.

Community activist Marcus Coleman said he doesn't always do that. He helped organize the initial peaceful protest in downtown Atlanta on Friday.

His flyer for the rally told members to wear masks. But he was caught on camera not wearing one, along with a lot of people around him.


“I’m just very skeptical,” Coleman said.

Coleman said when he’s not speaking to the crowd, he does put on a mask, just to be on the safe side. But researchers say that's when he needs the mask the most, because germs could spread even farther when he’s shouting to the masses.

"If you happen to be infected, you may be spreading more virus,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory University.

"The virus is in your lungs, in your nasal pharynx. So, with speaking, the droplets are coming out of your mouth,” said Dr. Ali Rezai with West Virginia University.

That’s why health experts say everyone demonstrating should wear a mask.

But with so many not taking that precaution, medical professionals are seeing the potential for a spike in COVID-19 cases, especially amongst African-Americans who are already disproportionately affected.

"What this is doing is that it’s bringing the virus many potential hosts that it can live in,” said Fulton county board of health director Lynn Paxton.

Dr. Michael Snyder, from Stanford University, called the demonstrations a health nightmare.

"It certainly has the potential to spread this pandemic and lead to another spike,” Snyder said.

The biggest concern is not necessarily the demonstrators who are marching, but their more vulnerable loved ones waiting at home.

"Imagine if somebody is shouting and they’re infected with the virus. Individuals around them can have the virus on them—and they go home and they can give it to potentially to their family or loved ones,” Rezai said.

Doctors said disinfecting yourself before going into your home might help.

But the best advice they gave: "Go home and wear a mask,” del Rio said. “At least for 14 days. Because it really is 14 days that you could potentially be infectious.”

Atlanta’s mayor told residents anyone who has taken part in any of the protests over the past week should get a COVID-19 test.

Fulton county is planning to test all first responders who dealt with demonstrators. But doctors warn even if you test negative, you could still be infected.

"I mean the virus has 4 or 5 days incubation period. It is after those 4 to 5 days that the transmission can occur,” del Rio said.

With that lag time, from 4 to 5 days up to 14 days, health researchers say it’s tough to tell if a spike in cases will happen.

"I mean I don’t know how many were infected, we really don’t know. So hopefully we won’t see it — but you can’t tell,” del Rio said.

“It could easily put things back for a few months,” Snyder said.

Protesters say that is a risk they must take.

"This is more important than COVID,” one protester said.

“Racism is the worst pandemic,” another one said.

Parker cancelled her plans to attend another rally this weekend after testing positive.

"Just for the health and safety of my community, I wanted to make sure that I’m OK before putting anyone else at risk,” Parker said.

Every health professional Choi spoke with said first and foremost, they understood the need to protest right now even with the pandemic.

But they stressed, unless everyone goes back to the rules of social distancing, wearing a mask and sanitizing, the virus could easily take off.

They said it’s not just at these protests, but they’re seeing people on the streets, headed to work, eating outside not wearing a mask. The said wearing masks have to become the new normal.