CORONAVIRUS

Did protests cause the spike in local COVID-19 cases? Here's what experts say

Protesters march on Iowa Avenue during a protest for racial justice in Iowa City on June 8. The recent protests are like
Protesters march on Iowa Avenue during a protest for racial justice in Iowa City on June 8. The recent protests are likely not the main contributor of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases locally, Johnson County public health officials say. (Nick Rohlman/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — Johnson County recently has seen a sharp resurgence of new novel coronavirus cases, prompting public health officials to warn residents that the pandemic isn’t over yet.

In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said 10 counties across the state — including Johnson County — have broken the statewide downward trend and are seeing a surge in positive COVID-19 cases. These counties have high population density and are home to the state’s public universities and colleges.

Since June 14, Johnson County officials have reported double-digit increases, counting between 40 and 50 new cases on most days in that two-week period.

On Monday, public health officials reported 70 new positive tests — the highest total reported in a 24-hour period since the virus was first identified in Johnson County on March 8.

Local officials say these new cases are seen prominently among individuals aged 18 to 25 years old.

This has prompted some to ask what is causing this resurgence. Could the protests happening in Johnson County and across the state be contributing to these new COVID-19 cases?

Since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, thousands have gathered in cities across the country to protest police brutality and to call for an end to racism faced by Black Americans.

Though they are not the only attendees, many participating in protests locally fit into a younger age category.

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It’s hard to determine the exact cause of the recent increase in cases, said Sam Jarvis, community health manager at Johnson County Public Health. However, the protests are not likely the main contributor to new COVID-19 cases.

According to Jarvis, few of the individuals who recently tested positive have mentioned attending a protest, which has drawn thousands to downtown Iowa City.

“And from what we’ve seen, those attending are wearing face coverings,” Jarvis told The Gazette. “Again, it would be difficult to determine, but we suspect it is due to social gatherings.”

An infectious disease specialist said the risk for virus transmission in an outdoor space is much less likely to happen than it is in an indoor setting.

“We’ve had protests throughout the United States and not all the places — even if they have large protests — have seen increases in cases,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, recently told The Gazette.

“In New York City, for example, the numbers continue going down. So it’s not clear that protests have played a significant role in the increase of cases.”

Instead, Jarvis said public health officials believe the spike is caused by a combination of factors. First, people may be going about their day without recognizing their symptoms, or “their symptoms are so mild it may be dismissed pretty easily,” Jarvis said.

In addition, it’s likely due to certain restrictions being lifted, including the reopening of bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces. That, coupled with people not wearing face coverings in public and not physically distancing, has allowed the virus to spread quickly among young adults.

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“Many of (the new cases), likely because of their age, tend to socialize and visit venues where transmission of COVID-19 may be more likely, such as indoor spaces that are crowded,” Salinas said. “So I see that pattern.”

Messaging from public health officials remains the same, and they continue to encourage individuals of all ages to stay home if they have symptoms or have been exposed to someone with a positive COVID-19 infection.

“With the majority of our cases being in a younger crowd, it’s apparent many are very active and social, which is natural, but we want to express how important it is for everyone to put these practices in place not only to protect themselves, but to protect others, especially those who are at high-risk,” Jarvis said.

“When someone stays home with mild symptoms, they are protecting others who may be very vulnerable.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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