January 16, 2021
capitol building congress COVID-19 insurrection Science superspreader Technology Trump

How the Trump-incited mob may have caused a COVID superspreader event

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A soiled mask has been discarded on a cracked tile floor.

Enlarge / A mask is left behind in a hallway at the US Capitol January 7, 2021, in Washington, DC. The US Congress has finished the certification for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Electoral College win after pro-Trump mobs stormed the Capitol and temporarily stopped the process.

Yesterday’s disgraceful and violent insurrection will stand as one of the darkest moments in American history. But it could also be yet another dark point in the ongoing pandemic, which—in case you got distracted—is still spreading out of control and devastating much of the country.

As seditionists entered the United States Capitol building Wednesday, health officials around the country logged more than 243,000 new cases of COVID-19. Hospitals tallied nearly 132,500 COVID-19 patients in their beds. And at least 3,793 American lost their lives to the pandemic virus. With surge upon surge of disease, over 21 million people in the US have been infected, and over 352,000 loved ones are dead.

Fuel on the inferno

The pandemic did not pause for those in the District of Columbia on Wednesday. Like many places, Washington has seen an increase in cases and deaths amid winter holidays. During the president’s insurrection, the capital reported 316 new cases—a sharp rise from the seven-day rolling average of 86 new cases per day logged on November 1. There were also five new deaths Wednesday, up from an average of one November 1. Overall, the city of more than 700,000 residents has reported a total of nearly 30,500 cases and over 800 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Yesterday’s event will only help sustain the current rise in DC and elsewhere. Thousands of Trump’s supporters amassed in close proximity to listen to the lame-duck president and others encourage the sedition. Many in the crowd were not wearing masks. And, although they were outside, being huddled in a dense, maskless crowd for a prolonged time certainly creates the opportunity for the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to waft easily among people, infecting some and ensuring the pandemic lives on.

Being outdoors is often seen as inherently safe, but it’s only safer. The vast, stirring outdoor air can more easily disperse any virus-toting respiratory droplets that float or shoot out of an infected person’s face. That’s in contrast to crowded and/or poorly ventilated indoor spaces where there’s less chance that droplets will be whisked away, possibly allowing them to build up to higher concentrations, increasing the risk of infection for those in the space. We still don’t know the exact amount of virus particles it takes to infect a person, but higher concentrations are absolutely riskier.

Transmission risks

Still, being outside does not mean the virus can’t spread, particularly when maskless people are packed into a dense, stationary mob. Being outdoors or in a well-ventilated space are but single layers in the multilayered approach necessary to reduce risk of spreading the virus. People, even outdoors, should wear masks, stay physically distanced, avoid crowded areas, and practice good hand hygiene. That certainly wasn’t the case in the Trump rally yesterday, just as it hasn’t been in previous rallies, which have also been associated with mass spreading of the virus.

Upping the risks further, Trump’s supporters openly mocked and rebelled against public health measures and the realities of the pandemic as they gathered in the city during the run-up to Wednesday’s events. In a Tuesday protest, a Trump supporter encouraged people to actively try to spread disease, encouraging them to hug people outside their households: “I’m going to give everyone three action steps… turn to the person next to you and give them a hug,” a speaker told a crowd. “Someone you don’t know… it’s a mass-spreader event! It’s a mass-spreader event!”

Though the “close contact” linked to COVID-19 spread is often defined as being within 6 feet of someone for 15 minutes or longer, nothing magical happens at the 6-foot point or 15-minute mark. These are simply rules of thumb for assessing risk. People may be infected in shorter time frames or even over slightly longer distances, depending on the nature of the interaction and the infectiousness of an infected person at the time. As such, public health experts generally advise against hugging.

“It’s a horrible thing to think that we would be here as the World Health Organization saying to people ‘Don’t hug each other,'” Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said in a press briefing last month. “It’s terrible. But that is the brutal reality in places like the United States right now.”

Threat to lawmakers

When hundreds of insurrectionists breached the Capitol building, the heightened risks spread among lawmakers and their staff. As chaos, violence, and ransacking ensued, lawmakers and staff tried to scurry to safety. Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told CBS News that when she was evacuated—after shots were fired inside the building—she was moved to a packed, undisclosed location with 300 to 400 other evacuees. Her fears then moved from the violence to the coronavirus. “It’s what I would call a COVID superspreader event,” Wild said.

“About half the people in the room are not wearing masks even though they’ve been offered surgical masks, they’ve refused to wear them.” She identified the maskless throng as some “people from the Republican delegation… some of the newer members that are freshmen this year are openly flaunting that they will not wear a mask and refusing to put a mask on… It’s exactly the kind of situation that we’ve been told by the medical doctors not to be in.”

She added that Congress members were not required to be regularly tested for COVID-19, but testing was available to them. Since yesterday, at least two members of Congress have announced that they have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.) received a positive test Wednesday evening, according to a Thursday tweet from his verified account. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) also announced that she had tested positive. Steel, who had been sworn into office Sunday, had expressed skepticism about the need for mask mandates.

Since the pandemic began, dozens of federal lawmakers and hundreds of their staff have contracted the virus, and many more have been exposed and put into quarantine. On December 29, Congressman-elect Luke Letlow (R-La.) died from COVID-19 at the age of 41.