In a conference call with governors Monday, top officials on the White House coronavirus task force expressed concerns that a spike in virus infections could result from the mass protests erupting across the country in recent days over the death of George Floyd.
In an audio recording of the call obtained by the Daily Beast, Vice President Mike Pence can be heard bluntly stating that infection spikes due to protests are "an issue our team is following and there is a concern."
Coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx relayed fears that yelling by protesters may be counteracting the safety benefits of wearing a mask. She also informed governors that a whopping 70 testing sites across the country had been destroyed as part of the protests and riots, and urged them to "scramble now to make sure there is testing available in urban areas."
In a previous call, Birx had warned that large metropolitan areas could see a surge in cases due to the protests.
"This could result in a fight over the next two weeks," she said at the time.
On Monday's call, Birx relayed further concerns that at-risk populations may in fact be attending the protests in greater number as the demonstrations have grown more peaceful. She also told governors it's "absolutely critical" that law enforcement who worked the protests without wearing masks be tested.
Birx specifically noted that even as the pandemic wanes across the country, three states — California, Arizona, and North Carolina — had experienced a rise in infections.
"That makes us quite concerned," she said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was not on either of the calls, but said last week that the George Floyd protests are the "perfect set-up for the spread of the virus."
"There certainly is a risk, I would say that with confidence, when you see the congregation of crowds," he said in an interview with Washington D.C. radio station WTOP. "Particularly in a situation where you have a lot of confusion and a little bit of chaos, people running back and forth, taking their masks off, being close in proximity, that does pose a risk."
The warnings expressed by top officials on the task force stand in contrast to the dozens of public health experts who last week backed the protests, writing in an open letter that "white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19."
Only weeks ago, state and local officials in several states criticized protests of lockdown orders, arguing that such gatherings would put public health and safety at risk. Yet the large protests following George Floyd's death went on largely without any scrutiny.