Riots at the Capitol could be a coronavirus superspreader event

Many people at the riot were not wearing masks or face coverings, were shouting and standing close to others in the crowd


Wednesday, pro-Trump rioters stormed into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, many in that crowd attended a rally put on by the president and stood around outside the Capitol. Many videos and photos of the people at the Capitol have surfaced, often showing people without masks or face coverings and standing in close proximity to others who were also maskless. Some health experts think this riot could be a superspreader event for COVID-19.

Large mass gatherings are not always superspreader events. Many people gathered in 2020 for Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests safely, some events numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. At the protests, organizers often encouraged people to wear masks and people who had mask supplies went through the crowd offering them to those who did not have masks. Volunteers also gave out hand sanitizer to those who wanted it. Health experts think that there isn’t evidence that BLM events may be superspreader events.

The riots at the Capitol are a different story and it is visually discernible.

The events yesterday could have been a superspreader event. “It certainly could be,” says Tara Smith, who is a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, in an email to Changing America.

“From what I saw in pictures and video, you had a large congregation of individuals who were in close contact for an extended period of time and almost universally unmasked. I saw many photos of individuals coming and going on buses as well, also unmasked, and hanging out in hotel lobbies.”

The scenes at the Capitol suggest that many of the people there didn’t follow public health guidelines. “Many rioters were yelling, not wearing masks, and there was little to no social distancing - all actions that allow COVID to easily spread. It is possible that this could be a superspreader event,” says infectious disease epidemiologist Beth Linas in an email to Changing America.

“More concerning is that many rioters were not from DC and are likely headed home and could bring COVID with them (and they could have brought it to DC as well)."

If the rioters are now returning back to their hometowns, they could be bringing the coronavirus with them if they were infected at the riot. “If just a few percentage of them are positive for the virus, this could lead to a considerable amount of spread, as we saw with other events such as the Sturgis rally,” says Smith.

The Sturgis rally was a mass motorcycle event that happened over the summer in South Dakota. The event lasted 10 days and led to at least 51 primary cases and 21 secondary cases in nearby Minnesota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That may not be all the cases related to the Sturgis event as it only represents one state’s data and cases may be underreported.

However, most of the rioters were outdoors, and that may have prevented some disease transmission from occurring.

“We never saw compelling evidence of an increase in cases following the protests over the summer. Based on this I’m skeptical that yesterday’s events will be a significant driver of the increasing transmission that we’ll likely see in the coming weeks due to holiday and other social gatherings,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, who is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in an email to Changing America.

“That said, the protests in the summer were outdoors, most participants wore masks and the US case numbers were lower then now. So this could increase the risk of transmission that occurred yesterday.”

No one can say for certain if yesterday’s events were a superspreader event, but it very well could turn out to be one.

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