Did protests cause Victorian COVID-19 spike?

When thousands of Black Lives Matters (BLM) protesters marched across Australia a fortnight ago, health experts warned these “dangerous” and “risky” events could endanger lives and cause a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

Protesters insisted they would wear face marks and practice social distancing and health authorities spent a nervous fortnight watching and waiting to see if a super spreader event was occurring that would spike cases.

When four protesters who attended the Melbourne rally were later diagnosed with COVID-19, critics of the BLM events pounced.

Victorian Liberal MP Tim Smith predicted that Premier Dan Andrews had made a catastrophic error.

“This protest has done one of two things: it’s spread the virus or it’s said to everyone else, ‘there’s no big problem here,’’’ he said.

“He’s letting these protesters get on the bongs, why can’t the rest of us get on the beers?”

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But a fortnight later, the incubation period for coronavirus, experts do not believe there are any confirmed cases of someone catching COVID-19 at the rallies.

That’s despite the four people in Victoria confirmed to have attended the BLM protests who were subsequently diagnosed with COVID.

Surprisingly, even in the United States where the coronavirus is rampant, some of the cities where the biggest BLM rallies occurred, including New York and Philadelphia, have actually recorded a fall in COVID cases after the protests.

What does that tell us about how the virus spreads and how contagious it is?

Infectious disease expert Professor Peter Collingon said it suggests that mass gatherings outside are safer than previously thought.

“Certainly it tells us that you are safer outside than inside,’’ he told news.com.au.

“And that has implications for sporting events and loosening other restrictions.”

Prof Collignon said following the basic advice to wash your hands and practise social distancing remained paramount.

Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton, who had urged Victorians not to attend the rallies, conceded today that the health experts did not believe that the Black Live Matters protesters had contributed to the spike.

“I don’t think so, I really don’t think so,’’ he said.

“It is re-emerging because people are not doing things as stringently as they might have done a month, two months ago. But I don’t think the Black Lives Matter protest has contributed. We are not seeing people who have clearly acquired it there.”

It’s a view echoed by his federal counterpart, the deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth.

“There are … cases that have been diagnosed as people who have COVID-19 and attended the Black Lives Matter protest, but there is no evidence that there has been chains of community transmission that we are aware of through the Black Lives Matter protests,’’ he said.

Protest organiser Tarneen Onus-Williams said the entire event was organised with the safety and health of attendees in mind.

“We had VACCO and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service provide us with masks and hand sanitiser because our community knows how important protest is to save black lives.”

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said today Australia had been “lucky” but he would still urge Australians not to attend mass gatherings.

“The potential is always there, I think you are probably right that we probably were lucky to have not seen major transmission at any of these events,’’ he said.

“There were two reasons for us strongly recommending against these events. One was the risk of spreading but the other is, it does send a very difficult message to the rest of the community who are obeying all of the restrictions,’’ he said.

“And there is always the potential that people seeing that sort of gathering may have felt less compliant with the regulations in the other aspects of their life.”

But given there are 10 cases of community transmission where the cause of the infection is now known, is it not possible some of the cases are linked to BLM?

Dr Coatsworth insists that forensic contact tracing is one reason why health officials do not believe that is the case.

That is, the community transmission cases have no known links with anyone who attended BLM.

“So, the contact tracing, as you know, is a very rigorous process. Those cases, while we don’t know where they have come from, the contact tracing will include genomics and we’ll use genomics to assist us in determining where they came from,’’ he said.

“But there is no evidence from the extensive investigation that Victoria has undertaken that those cases are linked to the Black Lives Matter protest.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today the flare up in Victoria, a “setback” was something Australians would have to learn to manage.

“They have localised outbreaks where they are considering stronger measures in the localised area, rather than having it extended across the state,’’ he said.

“That’s sensible under the circumstances, and we’d hope that that would mean that some of the restrictions could be eased once the risk has passed.

“But this is a practice that’s been placed following other countries. Israel, for example, does exactly the same thing when they have localised outbreaks.

“And that’s a way that we live with COVID-19. This is part of living with COVID-19.”

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