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Dr. Birx: Yes, the Riots Have Disrupted Coronavirus Testing

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Vice President Mike Pence and White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx had plenty of positive news to share in a call with governors on Wednesday. As Birx was happy to report, many states have noted an increase in testing and a decrease in positive cases. She singled out Maryland and Washington, D.C. as having shown significant improvement on both fronts.

But three states give her cause for concern. Test positives are increasing in California, Arizona and North Carolina. She said major cities Phoenix, Charlotte and Salt Lake City are specific problem areas, where there has been active community spread. 

There is another, obvious concern: The massive riots and protests that have erupted in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Although most major cities still have some sort of COVID-19 restrictions when it comes to gatherings, thousands of protesters have nevertheless assembled to cry out against what they believe is another instance of police brutality. In the nation's capital last weekend, a reported 1 million people marched in the streets.

Birx shared several specific concerns. 

"It does worry me because not everyone was in a mask, and some people were shouting," she said, explaining that it's unclear how efficient masks are when the wearer is shouting. 

The doctor is also very worried about some of the age groups that are beginning to join the protests. 

"More higher risk groups are on the streets," she observed. 

Finally, Dr. Birx said they've witnessed "a significant number of our testing sites that were serving inner city groups destroyed at the beginning of the protests." A lot of pharmacies, such as CVS sites, were looted and destroyed, and they can see testing rates in urban areas decline. She counted at least 70 urban area testing sites that were targeted.

Governors are going to have to "scramble" now to make sure they enough testing available, Dr. Birx implored her listeners. Protesters will have to be encouraged to wear masks, and if law enforcement officers cannot cover their faces, they should get tested. In his press conference Thursday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that yes, "every cop should be wearing a mask," but it's up to the police departments whether or not to discipline cops who don't wear them.

Dr. Birx and other experts say it will take more time to determine just how the protests have affected their work to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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