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How Protests Are Adding New Hardships For First Responders And Health Care Workers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here's how complicated this moment is. Protesters taking to the streets following George Floyd's death are demanding racial justice, but those protesters might be contributing to a second deadly wave of the coronavirus that could hit people of color hard. NPR's Brian Mann is in New York City and says first responders and health care workers are worried.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: A couple months ago, when COVID-19 was spiking in Brooklyn, Anthony Almojera's ambulance crews ran round the clock, trying to save people who couldn't breathe, who were suffering heart attacks.

ANTHONY ALMOJERA: It was like a bomb.

MANN: Almojera is a paramedic, a lieutenant with the New York Fire Department. He says the number of serious emergency calls almost doubled, and a lot of EMTs got sick. His crews are still recovering, and now they're watching huge demonstrations rock the city.

ALMOJERA: Yeah, we're concerned. We see the protests. You know, we don't want another COVID spike.

MANN: You hear this a lot among first responders and medical workers. They understand why marchers have taken to the streets, but they're also exhausted, dreading what might come next as social distancing efforts unravel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No justice, no peace.

MANN: On the streets of Lower Manhattan, it's hot. People are shouting, jostling together. Nelson Delgado (ph) says he doesn't think there's a serious risk.

NELSON DELGADO: I'm healthy.

MANN: Another marcher, who would only give her first name - Olivia - said she was worried about getting sick.

OLIVIA: Well, at first, I did, and I didn't go out. But as I started seeing more pictures and videos of people, it became obvious. Everyone is wearing masks.

MANN: Most marchers in New York are wearing masks but not all and not all the time. Health experts interviewed by NPR say masks might not be enough in big groups where people are chanting and yelling, sometimes coughing from pepper spray. Hundreds have been arrested, packed into holding cells.

LAUREN POWELL: It is very risky.

MANN: Dr. Lauren Powell is a former public health official in Virginia who works now to improve fairness and racial justice in the health care industry. She says people joining demonstrations across the country have to weigh incredibly complicated factors.

POWELL: So if you live with folks, you know, in your home who are immune-compromised, who suffer from underlying chronic conditions, you are certainly potentially putting family members at risk.

MANN: Powell notes many frontline health care workers are people of color and could bear the brunt of a second wave. Powell is black and says deciding whether to march is one more unfathomably painful choice faced by her community.

POWELL: To see a glimpse into how much black people juggle on a day-to-day level would overwhelm most, quite frankly. Should I go out because I may be disproportionately impacted? But how could I not? A black man - I just saw a black man murdered.

MANN: A lot of people are choosing to march. The crowds in New York have been growing while frontline medical workers watch and wait. Dr. Jeremy Sperling heads the emergency department at Jacobi Medical Center, one of the hospitals in the Bronx hit hardest by the pandemic.

JEREMY SPERLING: We flattened the curve and done such a great job, and New York City is decreasing the number of cases. Our fear is that in a week or two, we're going to see the results of a lack of social distancing and that - and then all of a sudden, we'll see a new wave that will come through.

MANN: The protests and the risk of another outbreak haven't derailed plans to begin reopening New York City's economy on Monday. That means even more people crowding into the city, riding public transit, possibly spreading the coronavirus.

Brian Mann, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEIST SONG, "THE BAD IN EACH OTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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