Was the riot at the U.S. Capitol a coronavirus superspreader event?

Group of Trump supporters at Capitol riot that might become a superspreader event
Photo via Washington Post/YouTube

As pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, photos and videos from the gathering showed that very few attendees were wearing masks. That’s prompted concerns that the Capitol riot may have served as a coronavirus “superspreader” event.

As Congress gathered to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes, a pro-Trump mob, which began as a protest, forced its way into the building. Members of Congress were forced to retreat, many sheltering together in a holding area. Meanwhile, the mob of people, many maskless, swarmed the building until authorities managed to disperse the riot. 

Previously, large events with groups of unmasked individuals have been labeled as “superspreader” events, after numerous people fell ill following their participation. Think of the Sturgis motorcycle rally last summer as an example. Unmasked political events, church services, fitness classes, and the celebration for a new Supreme Court justice have lead to numerous surges in cases in the following weeks. The circumstances surrounding these events often play a role, as respiratory droplets—which spread the virus—are shared more freely in some scenarios than in others.

The Capitol riot was, on paper, the perfect formula for a superspreader event. Not only did hundreds of unmasked people gather for an event, rioters also threw other precautions out the window. Many people were seen shouting throughout the event, lending their respiratory droplets to a far greater range than mere speaking would. The rioters also spent several hours within the confines of the Capitol. The virus is proven to spread more quickly indoors. 

Beyond the risk the rioters posed to each other, their actions also put congressional leaders in danger of coronavirus infection. Lawmakers voiced concerns that they may have participated in a superspreader event of their own, after many sheltered together at a secure location in the U.S. Capitol. 

“It’s what I would call a ‘COVID superspreader’ event,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Penn.) told CBS News. She said that 300-400 people gathered at an undisclosed location to wait out the violence. About half of the inhabitants of the room were maskless, according to Wild. “Even though they’ve been offered surgical masks, they’ve refused to wear them,” she said. “We weren’t even allowed to get together with our families for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now we’re in a room with people who are flaunting the rules and very much crowded in here.”

Another House lawmaker told Punchbowl News, “There’s a severe COVID outbreak coming among members. At the secure location yesterday at least 50 GOP members refused to wear masks. They were asked repeatedly. Older Dem members pleaded. And they wouldn’t do it … The sergeant at arms made announcements.”

On Jan. 11, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) said she tested positive for the coronavirus. On Twitter, she wrote, “Following the events of Wednesday, including sheltering with several colleagues who refused to wear masks, I decided to take a Covid test. I have tested positive.” Twenty-four hours later, two other Democrats, Pramila Jayapal from Washington and Brad Schneider from Illinois, revealed they had also tested positive.

On Jan. 19, Punchbowl News reported that at least 20 Capitol police officers had tested positive for the coronavirus and that “at least some of these cases could be tied to the riot.” A week later, nearly 40 officers had tested positive.

By Feb. 4, though, the Capitol police had secured enough COVID vaccines for all their officers to be inoculated.

Meanwhile, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the U.S. The nation has, as of Feb. 4, suffered more than 26.56 million COVID-19 infections and more than 450,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Sources: Scientific American, CBS News, Johns Hopkins

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