Using riot control agents such as tear gas on protesters during a respiratory pandemic is likely to exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus, health experts warned.
An open letter signed by more than 1,200 infectious disease experts, public health professionals and community stakeholders urges law enforcement to refrain from deploying tear gas on people protesting police violence against Black communities. Police have been seen ― sometimes indiscriminately ― firing tear gas agents to disperse protests, many of which have been peaceful, in cities across the U.S.
The effects of tear gas make those already infected with COVID-19 able to transmit the virus more efficiently, and people who don’t have the virus more susceptible to infection through a number of pathways, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a School of Medicine professor and an infectious diseases specialist at UC San Francisco, told HuffPost.
“Tear gas is designed to make people cough, so that projects the virus, which moves via droplets,” Chin-Hong said of infected individuals. Screaming and shouting, too, could help further the spread, he said.
For those who do not have COVID-19, their risk of infection could increase if, as a result of tear gas, they’re touching their faces more, rubbing their eyes or removing their masks, in addition to being more vulnerable due to inflammation caused by the respiratory irritants in the gas, Chin-Hong said.
Research has also found that people who have inhaled tear gas may be at higher risk for respiratory illnesses in the days after exposure. A study conducted on U.S. Army soldiers found recruits were more likely to contract respiratory illnesses, including influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia, after exposure during training exercises. And a study in Turkey found civilians with repeated exposure to tear gas were more likely to develop chronic respiratory conditions.
Chin-Hong, who helped edit the letter after it was drafted by a group of infectious disease experts at the University of Washington, said it was published with the goal of supporting protesters while helping them to mitigate risk.
“We wanted to affirm people’s right to speak out against all the tragedy that’s happening in the U.S right now,” he said. “To arm people with the knowledge of how they can stay safe while affirming their right to have their voices heard.”
The letter also demands law enforcement minimize harm to protesters by respecting infection prevention guidelines.
This would include authorities maintaining social distance from protesters, wearing masks, not detaining protesters in confined spaces such as jails and police vans, and stopping the use of tear gas.
For protesters, Chin-Hong suggested safety measures such as preparing backup masks and allies with hand sanitizer in the event they’re tear-gassed, as well as staying with the same cohort of people to minimize risk of exposure.
After attending protests, he suggested getting tested, cooperating with contact tracers and avoiding vulnerable family members.
Many experts have voiced concerns that protests, some of which turn out thousands of people, could become superspreading events for the coronavirus.
The letter’s authors remind readers that while they encourage the nationwide anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed as a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, their guidance “should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-at-home orders.”
“Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives,” the letter reads. “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”
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