Capitol Hill riot could prove to be COVID-19 superspreader event, experts say

Thousands of unmasked rioters flouted public health guidelines.

January 9, 2021, 3:19 PM

• 9 min read

Numerous photos and videos showed many shunning face coverings and social distancing, two measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help stop COVID-19.

Public health officials will not know for weeks exactly how many new COVID cases are linked to the Capitol Hill riots, but they say the riots could turn out to be a super spreader event.

“I am very concerned,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, told ABC News. “Rioters were in very close proximity for long periods of time, shouting, and exposed to chemical irritants, leading to coughing. Many of them were unmasked. These are all conditions that are very conducive to [COVID-19] transmission.”

This “signature pattern” seen throughout the pandemic has somehow been replayed over and over again, said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

“Large gatherings, with people not wearing masks, and especially if there’s indoor components, are our biggest risk to spread transmission,” he said, adding that potential superspreader events can have lasting effects.

Even CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield warned on Friday that the riots likely were a “surge event” that could have public health consequences across the country.

“I do think you have to anticipate that this is another surge event. You had largely unmasked individuals in a non-distanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol,” Redfield told McClatchy in an interview.

Scientists and health officials have repeatedly urged caution around mass gatherings, warning coronavirus transmission is heightened indoors, exacerbated by crowds.

“This could be the superspreader event to end all superspreader events, not to mention the fact that we are now in the worst point of this pandemic,” Brownstein added.

In the first week of 2021, U.S. states and territories have reported more coronavirus cases and deaths than at any point in the pandemic, and health officials have warned that the crisis will only get worse in the coming months as the effects of increased travel and holiday gatherings are felt.

Thursday’s 4,085 COVID-19-related deaths over the previous 24 hours set a new record — the third straight record day in the U.S., according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. With a seven-day average of 2,934 deaths by Friday, at least 368,367 Americans — about 1 in 900 — have died from the virus.

Many of the rioters travelled from different parts of the country and stayed in hotels. Ashli E. Babbitt, who was shot and killed inside the Capitol,

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