NEW HAVEN — Protesting police brutality and racism, as well as taking part in other public activities, can be done safely as long as people follow the same guidelines they have practiced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials of Yale New Haven Health said in an online press conference Thursday.

But asked whether the use of pepper spray by authorities is wise, given that it causes coughing and sneezing, Dr. Keith Churchwell, chief operating officer of Yale New Haven Hospital said, “probably not.”

“We hope and what we continue to see in the New Haven area is that protests have been peaceful and that the need for … aggressive crowd control has not been necessary and we hope that it continues to be so,” Churchwell said.

“It seems to me looking at the pictures and the video of the protests that have gone on in New Haven and the surrounding area, there is recognition by the protesters that they’re living in very much two worlds, the world that they’re working towards in improving social justice but also the world of COVID. … There have been a minimal number of the protesters without masks on,” Churchwell said.

As of Thursday, there were 105 inpatients in the health system’s five hospitals, down from more than 400 at the peak in Connecticut. There are 62 of them at Yale New Haven Hospital, 30 of them in intensive care.

Masks, social distancing and hand-washing are the key to prevention, they said, and it appears that protesters in Greater New Haven for the most part have been doing what they’ve been asked to do.

“We have been in support of these peaceful protests that you’ve seen across the country,” said Dr. Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer for the health system, including a solidarity event by 300 physicians and distribution of masks.

“There are ways that you can gather and I was really very proud of the residents that came together,” he said. “And if you see the photographs from the last protest in the city, I see almost no one not wearing masks, and I think that’s both a testament to the community, but I also want to thank the organizers who worked with us to be able to distribute those masks and I think that’s a great support of our community.”

CEO Marna Borgstrom said the health system has a responsibility “to be talking about, be mindful about and embrace some of the challenges that we’re all experiencing, related most recently to George Floyd’s killing but to many more instances of racial bias that we have all either been part of or witnessed for far too long. … It is our shared responsibility to do what we can to change our culture and to influence the cultures around us to be much more balanced and much more inclusive of all of the people that we are privileged to work with and to care for.”

Balcezak said he didn’t believe there necessarily were increased risks to crowds gathering to protest. “Anything has the capacity to be a superspreading event,” he said. “In our own community, we saw that there was a birthday party in lower Fairfield County that was a superspreading event. So I don’t think that that’s the challenge here with protests. I think there’s plenty of ways for people to exercise their rights and have peaceful protests and still stay safe.”

The same goes for eating at a restaurant, which will be allowed indoors as of Wednesday, going to church or exercising in a gym, he said.

“If you are singing, shouting, exercising hard and breathing hard, that’s where, if you have virus, you will be spreading it. So we need to take steps to minimize,” Balcezak said.

“What we would not want to see, and if we did see it, would be looking at the doubling rate. If we see an uptick a little bit one day and it’s a little bit more the next day, that doubling rate is key to predicting where the spike is coming, and … if we see a few days, and I’ll be vague about it like that, of increasing rates and increasing doubling rates, then we’re going to really sound the alarm bell.”

Churchwell pointed out that emergency plans have been called for in the southwestern United States because of a spike in COVID-19 cases after reopening. “We want to avoid that,” he said. “We think that we have a strategy not only within our hospital but also from the state perspective of what we should do to avoid that, but we continue to prepare for what may happen in the fall and winter.”

Churchwell also said the hospital has gotten back to performing major surgeries. “Over the past three months we did over 11 heart transplants. We did over 23 kidney transplants” of patients who are both positive and negative for COVID and “successfully were able to do those particular high-risk procedures with an immune-compromised patient population ... now home after just a few days, and, in that, have shown that we can actually, in a great sense, tap dance and juggle at the same time.”

Balcezak said the health system is not ready to loosen restrictions on hospital visitors. “We understand it is extremely hard for patients and families not to be allowed except under certain circumstances to be visiting. But also our goal is health and safety and health and safety have to trump everything,” he said.

“We are not yet ready to open up beyond what we are currently allowing for visitors, which is children can have a parent, special-needs individuals in special circumstances can have one helpful caregiver and delivering moms can have a birth partner. ... As soon as our epidemiology and infection-prevention staff feel that we can do so in a safe manner, we will begin to open up.”

The Strong School will open as a COVID testing site in July, but the Long Wharf site closed this week because of lower demand, with all testing consolidated at the St. Raphael campus. A doctor’s order is needed at Yale New Haven’s testing site and, Balcezak said, “We’ll provide that for you through our call center and there’s no charge.”

He said the health system is doing 2,000 tests per day, limited to some extent by a shortage of supplies.

Connecticut Media Group