Could protests cause COVID-19 spikes? Tough to tell.

If coronavirus infections surge in the wake of protests against police brutality and racism, it won’t necessarily mean that the protests are what’s causing the increase.

That’s because the protests have been happening around the same time that states are reopening businesses and workplaces—which could also lead to more infections, according to Caroline Buckee, associate professor of epidemiology and associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a June 22, 2020 Q&A in Scientific American, Buckee spoke about the risks of protesting, the difficulty of tracing infections to protests, and how protestors can stay safe.

“It’s somewhat difficult to disentangle cases [of COVID-19] directly arising from the protests versus just opening up of society in general,” Buckee said. She noted that since many of the protesters were young, they may not have symptoms or get sick enough to seek medical attention, so their cases may not be recorded. They may, however, go on to infect others—elderly people or those with health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19—and those infections may take a while longer to show up.

Although she expressed support for protestors, she acknowledged that protesting carries risks, since people may be in the middle of a packed crowd or be corralled in crowded vans or jail cells. She advised people attending protests to take as many precautions as possible, such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and to consider quarantining afterwards if they live with people who may be vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Read the Scientific American Q&A: How to Evaluate Coronavirus Risks from Black Lives Matter Protests