COVID-19 patients aren’t asked whether they participated in protests, doctor says

Contact tracing information offered voluntarily

Protestors lie down on South Street in front of the Orlando Police Department in Orlando, Fla., Friday, June 5, 2020. The protests continue in Orlando on Friday over the death of George Floyd when he was in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP) (Orlando Sentinel)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – As protesters filled the streets in downtown Orlando in early June -- most wearing masks, some not -- questions began to circulate about whether the mass demonstrations would lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Although cases have been on the rise across the state in recent weeks, it’s unclear whether that’s due to the George Floyd protests or just as a result of businesses reopening and increased activity in Florida.

The director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County Dr. Raul Pino said that contact tracers responsible for determining how a person acquired the deadly respiratory illness and tracking down others who may have been exposed don’t specifically ask about a patient’s participation in protests or other political activity.

When asked Monday about any correlation between the racial justice rallies about two weeks ago and the recent record-high numbers, Pino said, “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said on June 11 that it was “too early to truly understand” whether the protests would lead to a spike. That’s because, according to Pino, it takes about two weeks to see the impact on the numbers. For example, cases that originated from exposure during the busy Memorial Day weekend or bars opening in early June were likely only reflected in the statewide totals last week or the week before.

While patients are asked about their recent activity, Pino said contact tracers have to be careful not to bring up the protests.

“As I was saying before these words like a clock. The marks for the two weeks was after Memorial Day weekend and right after the bars and other establishments of that nature were open and the idea is that we don’t ask specifically to individuals ‘Have you been at the protest?' because there’s so many elements of freedom and rights for those individuals to be at those protests and also the information that we collect is voluntarily offered to us,” Pino said.

Orange County’s leading doctor said he’s talked to some of the patients himself and some have mentioned attending events and learning that someone who was also there tested positive.

“So, but in these dynamics, and I have interviewed with people myself on the phone, while we have families and younger individuals who went out in a group they later learn that someone else in that group was positive, and then everyone else in the group acquired to the disease. People have dinner and people have parties in congregation kind of settings,” Pino said.

As of Tuesday, Orange County is reporting a cumulative total of 10,112 cases, 446 hospitalizations and 58 deaths.

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