Occupy Wall Street Is Petri Dish Of Activism — And Germs

The chorus began quietly at a recent strategy session inside Zuccotti Park, with a single cough from a security team member, a muffled hack between puffs on his cigarette. Then a colleague followed. Then another.

Soon the discussion had devolved into a fit of wheezing, with one protester blowing his nose into the mulch between clusters of tents.

“It’s called Zuccotti lung,” said Willie Carey, 28, a demonstrator from Chapel Hill, N.C. “It’s a real thing.”

As the weather turns, the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the nexus of the Occupy Wall Streetprotests in Lower Manhattan, have been forced to confront a simple truth: packing themselves like sardines inside a public plaza, where cigarettes are shared and a good night’s sleep remains elusive, may not be conducive to good health.

“Pretty much everything here is a good way to get sick,” said Salvatore Cipolla, 23, from Long Island. “It’ll definitely thin the herd.”

The city’s health department said that officials had visited the park and that it would continue to monitor conditions with winter looming. “It should go without saying that lots of people sleeping outside in a park as we head toward winter is not an ideal situation for anyone’s health,” the department said in a statement.

Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said the conditions could leave park-dwellers susceptible to respiratory viruses; norovirus, the so-called winter vomiting virus, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea and which could quickly overwhelm the limited bathroom facilities in the area; and tuberculosis, which is more common in indigent populations and can be spread by coughing.

Even some camping in the park have grown concerned in recent weeks with the living quarters. Damp laundry and cardboard signs, left in the rain, have provided fertile ground for mold. Some protesters urinate in bottles, or occasionally a water-cooler jug, to avoid the lines at public restrooms. Food, from orange peels to scrambled eggs, is often discarded outside tents.

“I’m amazed that in a park full of revolutionaries, there are large contingents that can’t throw away their own trash,” said Jordan McCarthy, 22, a member of the protesters’ sanitation team.

Demonstrators do maintain a medical tent, filled mostly with over-the-counter medications and alternative treatments, like herbal remedies. Some have spotted shamans walking the premises, Mr. Carey said, though licensed doctors and nurses often take volunteer shifts in the tent as well. Some strap flashlights to their heads, like workers in a mine shaft, because the site becomes so dark at night. (The tent has no electricity.)

Miniature bottles of hand sanitizer have appeared sporadically inside the park, though it is unclear who placed them there. Volunteers at the medical tent also have on-call contacts in acupuncture, chiropractics, massage therapy and psychotherapy, protesters said.

“We’re a triage clinic,” said Pauly Kostora, 27, a former licensed nurse, as he rolled the tent’s single wheelchair into a corner. “We don’t pretend to be a hospital.”

Many protesters recognize the threat the conditions could pose to the optics of their occupation. Earlier this week, a man at an Occupy New Orleans encampment was found dead in his tent — and had been dead at least two days, authorities said. If similar news were to come out of Lower Manhattan, some protesters have said quietly, the camp’s reputation could suffer significant damage.

With the winter bearing down, though, organizers have tried to prepare. The group has placed orders for large, military-style tents, capable of holding about a dozen people, said Cynthia Villarreal, a member of the information team. The aim is to move protesters out of smaller tents and tarps and into the new constructions, which are far sturdier and warmer.

A team from Union Health Center in Chelsea came on Wednesday and Thursday to administer flu shots for no charge, a welcome arrival for many sniffling protesters, although some refused vaccinations, citing a government conspiracy.

Although condoms are often available on-site, Dr. Tierno said the protest’s evolution to private tents, from sleeping out in the open, had raised the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The site’s pounding drum circles, he added, could lead to hearing damage. He compared conditions at Zuccotti Park to those in a hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca, in which whole groups of people have come down with respiratory infections in a short time — and those experienced by the flower children of the 1960s, when, he said, communal living situations created problems with sanitation and sexually transmitted diseases.

Ms. McCarthy, who said the month she had spent in the park was the longest amount of time she had remained in one place in two years, noted the health obstacles might be a point of pride for some demonstrators who view sickness as the product of their sacrifice. “That’s what makes an occupation such a powerful statement,” she said. “We will risk our own health and give up completely our own comfort.”

Of course, contagions may not be confined to the park population. On Wednesday evening, at the western end of the plaza, where walking paths tighten by the day and an “Occupy Paw Street” station has been assembled for protesters’ dogs, Mr. Cipolla solicited donations, shouting at passers-by through a megaphone.

“We’re the biggest tourist attraction in New York,” he said. “And we shake everyone’s hands.”


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