People across the globe have been trying to cope with the new coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Now, as the pandemic rages on, the murders of Black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have sparked protests in more than 1,000 towns and cities across the U.S. and internationally in countries like Switzerland, Brazil, and Australia.
Systemic racism is a public health crisis, too. “Everybody who is out protesting right now is aware that protesting carries some risk,” Eleanor J. Murray, Sc.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, tells SELF. But it’s a risk that protestors are willing to take because the cause is that vital. Now, though, comes the question of when to get tested if you’ve been to a protest.
Up until this point, the general consensus has been that testing should mainly be reserved for people who have COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, nausea, diarrhea, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, and loss of taste or smell. This is because our country’s testing capacity has been less than stellar over the course of the new coronavirus crisis. There simply haven’t been enough resources to test broad swaths of people who haven’t started showing symptoms.
Now, though, given the scope of the protests and the potential for these gatherings to spread the virus, Robert Redfield, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified to Congress that protestors should “highly consider” getting tested, especially if they’re in metropolitan areas that haven’t controlled their COVID-19 outbreaks. Some cities, like New York and Philadelphia, are also urging anybody who has been in a large crowd to get tested.
If you’re protesting, whether it’s once or several times, it’s key to understand how COVID-19 testing works, when you should be seeking out tests, and what you can do to minimize your risk in a protest environment. Here’s what you need to know to best protect yourself, anyone you might interact with after you protest, and the activists fighting for justice alongside you.
The general rule is to wait at least a couple of days after protesting before getting tested.
If you attended a protest on Saturday and try to get tested on Sunday, don’t expect the test to be especially informative. There aren’t firm numbers on how long it takes for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to detect the presence of viral genetic material that signals an active COVID-19 infection. While we wait for that clarity, experts are generally basing testing timeline recommendations on what we know about the incubation period of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, meaning how long after exposure it can take for a person to develop symptoms. The average incubation period is thought to be between two and 14 days, so recommendations for testing will typically fall in that range, Murray says. She suggests getting tested five days after your first protest, which is right around the virus’s median incubation period, according to the CDC. In his Congressional testimony, Dr. Redfield of the CDC suggested getting tested three to seven days after protesting.
These recommendations stand even if you wear a mask (they’re helpful but not perfect) and don’t develop COVID-19 symptoms post-protest. The CDC currently estimates that around 35 percent of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, which means people never develop symptoms, and the organization thinks that 40 percent of new coronavirus transmission is presymptomatic, meaning it occurs before people have symptoms. The reality is it’s not entirely clear how many people are asymptomatic or presymptomatic or how infectious those people are. As Maria Van Kerkhove, Ph.D., the head of the WHO’s Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses unit clarified in a live Q&A on June 9th, even some of the people originally deemed “asymptomatic” did indeed have symptoms—the symptoms were just very mild.
If you start feeling sick after a protest, get tested.
It’s worth noting that some of the milder COVID-19 symptoms, like sore throat, fatigue, or headache can also be symptoms of, well, attending a protest. Yelling and chanting can cause a sore throat. Walking and standing for hours is pretty exhausting. With few places to pee and hot weather in some areas, you might not be drinking enough water and get dehydrated—a good way to get a headache. If you have barely been out of the house in weeks, went to one protest, and start feeling symptoms like these as soon as you get home, remember that the virus doesn’t usually present itself immediately, Murray says. But if you’ve had many instances of potential exposure to the virus, like going to multiple protests, it’s smart to look into testing whenever your symptoms begin.