Minnesota National Guard says it will test all of its deployed members


National Guard members walk at the area in the aftermath of a protest after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., May 29, 2020.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

The Minnesota National Guard plans to test all of its deployed members for the coronavirus after one tested positive and nine others have reported symptoms, a spokesman told CNBC on Tuesday.

The state’s National Guard has deployed nearly 7,000 personnel in response to mass protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, caused by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the unarmed black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, according to spokesman Scott Hawks.

“Upon activation, all of our members were screened for health readiness, including for symptoms of COVID-19,” Lt. Col. Dean Stulz said in a statement, adding that one service member tested positive for Covid-19 and has been placed in isolation. “Screening and testing of those activated guard members has been a part of our plan since the earliest days, it is not a response action to having a positive result.”

The state’s National Guard is now developing plans to test every one of its deployed members for the coronavirus, Hawks said, though a timeline remains unknown. It’s unclear when the infected service member tested positive and how much interaction they had with other service members and the public.

“We have made efforts to wear masks and to encourage social distancing where possible, however when you create a line to protect people or buildings you are shoulder to shoulder,” Hawks said in a statement. “These are the required risks that we accept when in uniform to keep the public safe and restore peace and order.”

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The news comes as epidemiologists and public health specialists publicly worry that the mass protests, which have engulfed the nation, could allow the coronavirus to rapidly spread just as states begin to reopen large sectors of the economy.

Broad testing of everyone involved in the protests will be key to ensuring that the virus doesn’t spread unchecked from the protests to new communities, said Dr. David Eisenman, director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters at UCLA.

Minnesota has processed 258,747 diagnostic tests for the coronavirus since March 6, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. Through May, the state of more than 5 million conducted about 5,780 tests per day on average, according to data from the volunteer effort founded by reporters at The Atlantic magazine.

Some health specialists and economists have repeatedly called for the U.S. to ramp up its ability to test broadly throughout the population. While the country’s average daily number of tests nearly doubled in May compared with April, it still falls short of the massive testing programs some epidemiologists have called for. 

“Now is the time when we need to be having testing more than ever, given the likelihood of spread,” Eisenman said. “We need to be doing everything we can to protect those protesters and to protect the communities they go back into, the families they go back to every night.”

The activities expected to take place at protests, such as yelling and chanting could prove to exacerbate spread of the virus, said epidemiologist Bob Bednarczyk at Emory University. People are forced into close contact at such protests where there’s a lot of shouting and chanting, which are both factors that contribute to spread he said. He added that the use of tear gas on groups of protesters could also cause people to cough and spread the virus even more.

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“I am very concerned about the use of tear gas to break up these protests,” he said. “When there is a respiratory disease pandemic occurring, the use of a chemical that causes people to cough violently can lead to more spread of disease.”

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Via CNBC