01 June 2020
Over the past week, people across the United States have been protesting the death of George Floyd.
The 46-year-old black man died while being held by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Videos of Floyd's death show a white police officer keeping a knee pressed on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe."
The protests -- and police actions to control them -- are threatening to undo American health officials' efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts need newly infected people to remember everyone they were in contact with in the days leading up to their confirmed sickness. This helps to let others know they may have been exposed -- and prevent those people from spreading the disease even more.
The process is known as contact tracing. It depends on people being able to know who they came close to. That is no easy task if someone has attended a protest with hundreds or even thousands of other people.
The process also depends on something that may be in especially short supply right now: Trust in government.
"These events that are happening now are further threats to the trust we need," said Dr. Sandro Galea. He leads Boston University's School of Public Health.
Government officials hope to continue reopening businesses, religious centers and other organizations after months of stay-at-home orders and other infection-prevention measures. But health experts also hoped that reopening would include widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation to prevent new waves of illness from beginning.
It is unclear if the protests will lead to new outbreaks. The protests have taken place outside, where the virus does not spread as easily. Also, many of the protesters have been seen wearing face masks.
But experts still worry that public efforts to contain the disease in the future could be harmed.
In Los Angeles, the city's mayor announced Saturday that COVID-19 testing centers were being closed because of safety concerns related to violent protests. And some medical centers in Minneapolis that provide testing have been damaged in the protests, a government spokesperson said.
Reduced testing could "be giving the virus another head start," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Concern over contact tracing
Contact tracing, which is only just getting started in several states, is an even bigger concern. It involves people who work for or with health departments asking questions about where a person has been and who they have been talking to — and getting full, truthful answers in return.
Schaffner said the current situation in the U.S. could make people less likely to speak with anyone working for the government.
That is especially true in black communities dealing with police violence and long-held frustrations with how they are mistreated by people who work for government agencies. Those are also the communities that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus and are most in need of public health measures to help control the spread.
In a press conference last week, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington used the term "contact tracing" when describing an investigation into protesters who had been arrested in the state. He said the goal was to "see if there are any crime or white supremacy organizations" that caused violence and destruction and "to understand how...we go after them, legally."
Harrington's use of "contact tracing" by law enforcement may make the job of health workers more difficult, some experts said.
"That was an abuse of the word ‘contact tracing.' That is not what contact tracing is," said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Contact tracing is a service to patients and their contacts to provide services for patients and warning for contacts, Frieden said. "It has nothing to do with police activity. Nothing."
Boston University's Galea said he hopes many people will separate in their minds the contact tracing done by public health workers from crime investigations by the police. But, he added, "I do think sometimes it's difficult to make a distinction when you feel...targeted by the entire government."
I'm Ashley Thompson.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
expose - v. to leave (something) without covering or protection
isolation - n. the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others
mayor - n. an official who is elected to be the head of the government of a city or town
frustration - n. a feeling of anger or annoyance caused by being unable to do something
white supremacy - n. the belief that that the white race is better than all other races and should have control over all other races
epidemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people
distinction - n. the separation of people or things into different groups