Demonstrators asked to self-monitor for COVID-19; EOHU acknowledges racism a ‘public health issue’

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis addresses the media on Zoom, June 6.

CORNWALL —  The Eastern Ontario Health Unit is voicing support for yesterday’s demonstration in Russell and a similar Black Lives Matter march planned against systemic racism 1 p.m. today in Cornwall. However, the local Medical Officer of Health also advises participants to wear masks and, afterward, to immediately shower and launder their clothing, monitor themselves for COVID-19 in the days to come and even seek testing if needed — among other health tips to reduce spread of the virus.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis addressed the issue during his daily media briefing yesterday, explaining his support for such gatherings while meetings of more than five people are simultaneously forbidden in Ontario.

“This is an issue where I think we have no choice,” explained the doctor. “You can see thousands of people in Ottawa and Toronto, in all parts of Ontario, all parts of the United States, doing this, and I think that what we can do is really stand behind the message … in terms of our concern about inequities and violence and all the negative consequences caused by racism and related segregation and hateful acts. And at the same time provide some information and advice to protesters as to how to safely do it. This really unprecedented kind of perfect storm of pandemic and tragic event that occurred in the United States that triggered this outrage we’re seeing worldwide.”

Dr. Roumeliotis said that tickets would not be issued for violating the five-person or the two-metre distancing rules at the local demonstrations.

When asked about the apparent policy contradiction, the doctor put it down to a “perfect storm of very weird circumstances — unprecedented pandemic and this outrage. So I do understand, but luckily we’re at the verge now of perhaps extending some of these restrictions further. ”

“But I see it,” he acknowledged. “I’ve actually got people on Twitter telling me the same: … ‘I can’t have my family over or get a haircut.’ I agree, there’s a dichotomy there.”

“This is really an event of international proportion, as you’ve seen,” Dr. Roumeliotis explained further, also expressing hope, when asked, that there won’t be other demonstrations on other issues such as the lockdown itself.

He estimated that any COVID-19 cases resulting from such gatherings would likely turn up within a week, as the virus’s incubation period typically falls between four and seven days. However, it will take 14 days to know for certain that new cases have resulted, the doctor said, though he ruled out asking the demonstrators to self-quarantine for that period of time after the event. “At this point, I would just ask them to self-monitor.”

The doctor’s advice comes as Cornwall marks its first example of somebody testing positive for COVID-19 despite having no symptoms. That case “doesn’t merit me telling everyone to self-isolate,” the doctor said of the protesters, again emphasizing his advice that they self-monitor and also stay away from vulnerable individuals.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — asphyxiated as a police officer knelt on the prone, handcuffed man’s neck for over eight and a half minutes — ignited a storm of protests across the United States, also extending into Canada.

The EOHU issued a full statement from Dr. Roumeliotis yesterday describing racism as a public health issue in this country. The statement — and related health advice for local demonstrators — appears in full below.

In light of recent tragic events involving violence against the Black community south of the border, I’d like to reiterate our position that racism is a public health issue of ongoing concern both abroad and here in Canada. Racism, whether it is directed against Black, Indigenous, First Nations, Asian or other communities, is unacceptable in all forms. As Canadians, we must work together to shed light on racism where it exists, to acknowledge it and to eradicate it.

Racism creates a climate in which violent incidents can occur without scrutiny and consequences, and we must not tolerate this. But the impacts of racism are insidious and widespread, extending beyond violent incidents. It is a well-known public health fact that racism is a social determinant of health. Victims of racism are disproportionately susceptible to social disadvantages and physical and mental health impacts. Social inequities, isolation and segregation cause higher rates of both mental and physical illness in victims of racism. The current pandemic is no exception, as it has become clear that socially disadvantaged populations have a higher susceptibility to severe illness and death caused by COVID-19.

The latest tragic and senseless murder of an African American man by police has very rightly sparked a tremendous outflow of anger, grief and frustration across the globe. The angst that has been displayed by protesters worldwide has brought to the forefront the underlying outrage towards entrenched social and structural racism. Demonstrations are playing an important role in compelling authorities and individuals to confront and examine the issue of racism. 

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit supports the right to peaceful demonstrations demanding social change. However, I would like to encourage everyone to do so in a way that protects both themselves and others, especially during the ongoing threat of our current pandemic. You may want to consider virtual alternatives to show your support, especially if you or someone in your household is at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19. If you are sick or have any possible COVID-19 symptoms, it’s important to stay at home and follow public health instructions.

If you choose to participate in a demonstration, please do the following to protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

• At all times, try to keep a minimum distance of 2 metres (6 ft) from other participants.
• Wear a mask for added protection. Avoid touching your face or the mask.
• Bring hand sanitizer and use it often.
• Avoid shouting because it can project respiratory droplets into the air and onto people. Instead, use signs, drums or musical instruments to express your support.
• Don’t share water, food, posters or other items.

Following the demonstration:

• Remove and wash your clothes immediately.
• Shower as soon as you can.
• Disinfect any materials that you carried.
• Monitor yourself for COVID-19 symptoms and get tested if needed.
• Avoid contact with those who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease (e.g. older people, those with pre-existing health conditions).

See the post below for details about today’s demonstration, including the route. 

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