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SC could see coronavirus surge after George Floyd protests, experts say

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Sunday protest gallery_18.JPG (copy)

Demonstrators chant in Marion Square in Charleston on Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Charleston and Columbia protests against police brutality could lead to a future surge in coronavirus cases in South Carolina, health experts and historians say. 

While many demonstrators in both cities, and beyond, wore masks as they condemned the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, not all did. In many cases, protesters and police alike were packed closely together, against recommendations to space out so that the virus that causes COVID-19 can't spread. 

Linda Bell, South Carolina's chief epidemiologist, said public health officials are worried at the prospect of any large gathering, whether it be a private party over Memorial Day weekend or dense protests. 

A few factors make a protest a particularly worrisome petri dish, however.

Police use of tear gas to disperse crowds provides an irritant that could cause a carrier of the virus without symptoms to spread the pathogen even further by coughing, sneezing or crying, said Mike Schmidt, a immunologist at the Medical University of South Carolina.

A spokeswoman for the state's health agency also said the risk of spread is increased "when individuals are loudly talking, cheering or yelling — all of which may produce more particles containing virus that also may spread further."

Schmidt said the protests, which continued around the state and the country on Monday, led to a "perfect storm" of conditions to spread the disease, especially in larger cities. Participants in Chicago and Atlanta, for example, stand a far greater chance of running into a carrier than in Charleston, where case counts have stayed lower so far. 

"Charleston has been blessed in that we have not seen a large number of cases in the greater metro area," Schmidt said. "The question is whether we are going to see a spike in the next two weeks. It's going to be interesting to watch the numbers two weeks from Saturday and Sunday."

Still, case counts elsewhere in the state have been creeping up, as has the Charleston area's growth rate in tests that come back positive, Schmidt said. 

Some protesters, like Shakem Akhet of North Charleston, said he hadn't deeply considered the virus before going into the streets. Ahket didn't wear a mask this weekend and said he didn't consider that tear gas might make the virus spread more easily. 

He said the burning it caused was intense. In one case, Akhet spotted a woman using a muddy puddle on the side of a street to try to flush out her eyes. 

"It almost seems like emotion has taken over to the point to where people aren't even concerned (about getting sick)," he said. 

In Sunday morning attempts to clean up Charleston's Upper King Street, volunteers were also working in close contact. 

"I wore a mask, but I've been wearing a mask when I was in public," said David Thompson, a local architect who went to help several friends in the restaurant industry. "People who have gotten used to it are doing it and people that haven't aren't, and, probably, (Sunday cleanup) was no different."

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Mason Crowson, who helps run the Aristocrat Bar near the epicenter of Saturday night's unrest in Columbia, has been helping protesters wash out their eyes from tear gas throughout the protests. 

Crowson, who was wearing a face covering as he attended Monday's event near the S.C. Statehouse, said he was doing his best to social distance but that his priority was supporting the demonstrators. 

"This is objectively what I feel is right right now," he said. 

The demonstrations came after a recent stretch of worrisome state reports on coronavirus tests. 

On Monday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported the fourth-highest count of new cases in a single day; the record high had been set just two days before.

It's unclear exactly how numbers will change in the future. No existing model accounts for factors like civil unrest and tear gas, Schmidt said. 

But it's clear that past political speech and rallies have contributed to pandemics in the past.

Spanish Influenza spread in part by "bond rallies" to support the World War I effort, said Nukhet Varlik, who studies historic epidemics at the University of South Carolina.

A September 1918 gathering of around 200,000 in Philadelphia led to a devastating wave of Spanish Influenza there, for example. 

"As soon as the parade was over, people starting feeling the symptoms," Varlik said. "Within a couple of days, all the hospital beds in Philadelphia were full."

A 1918 Armistice Day celebration in Marion Square also helped stoke the Spanish Flu that was then rolling through Charleston, College of Charleston medical historian Jacob Steere-Williams said. 

In Charleston, much of this weekend's activity centered around the same square.

Andy Shain and Adam Benson contributed to this report.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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