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NC says it's prepared to respond to possible COVID-19 outbreaks from protests

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(The Center Square) – Protests over the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis could serve as a hotbed for additional COVID-19 cases and decrease the odds for vulnerable communities in North Carolina, according to research and data.

Although it is too early to tell, the state's top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said North Carolina is in a good position to respond to any outbreaks that stem from the demonstrations.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) made an open call Monday for vendors to partner with the state to increase testing and tracing efforts in historically marginalized communities.

In North Carolina, African Americans make up about 22 percent of the population, but account for 34 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

Cohen, NCDHHS secretary, said higher poor health outcomes in African Americans are a result of "structural racism."

"While we cannot undo the harm that communities of color have suffered, we can act," she said. "One small down payment on that call to action is how we respond to COVID-19 as a state."

Protests started in Charlotte on Friday and continued in Fayetteville, Greensboro and Raleigh, as of Tuesday, in response to the death of George Floyd, who died in the custody of Minnesota police.

Hundreds of people in North Carolina have attended demonstrations, going against current COVID-19 restrictions that limit outside gatherings to 25 people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warns against hosting large events where people are too close to each other, especially among communities that are at higher risk for severe symptoms.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the death rate for African Americans is generally higher than in whites for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. These medical conditions make the group more susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19.

Since late April, ReOpen NC, a group of mostly white activists, has protested against COVID-19 restrictions at least once a week, according to reports. The leader of the group said she tested positive for the coronavirus in April. Cohen said contract tracers had not linked any outbreaks to the ReOpen NC protests.

NCDHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight Connor said people should wear a cloth face covering, wait 6 feet apart and wash their hands frequently whenever they leave home to slow the spread of the virus.

Cohen said she was pleased to see a majority of the protesters over the weekend wearing masks. Yet, all three of the precautionary steps should be done in "concert together," she said.

CDC recommendations for large gatherings also call for setting up a plan to respond to outbreaks. Cohen said she is "keeping an eye" on the situation.

"I think we're in a much better place than we were just a few months ago when this all started in March," she said. "We now have worked incredibly hard to get the protective equipment we need. We've worked hard to really ramp up our testing effort."