George Floyd protests: Tear gas, smoke, other irritants can worsen coronavirus spread, say experts
Chemical agents in tear gas can irritate nose, mouth and lungs, causing inflammation that could weaken the body’s ability to resist Covid-19
As large crowds continue to gather across the US protesting against the killing of George Floyd, health experts have opposed the use of tear gas, smoke or other respiratory irritants, which they say could increase the risk for Covid-19 by making the respiratory tract more “susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation and inducing coughing.” However, an open letter signed by 1,288 public health professionals, infectious disease professionals and community stakeholders from across the US, also says that the protests should not be shut down under the guise of maintaining public health for Covid-19 restrictions.
The new coronavirus spreads primarily from person-to-person and one can become infected from respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. In some places in the US, protesters have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets and other tactics intended to control crowds without taking lives. Accordingly, the experts say they are concerned about the health implications of how tear gas or smoke could cause people to cough and sneeze, which increases the risk of coronavirus transmission. Moreover, chemical agents in a tear gas can irritate the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs, causing inflammation that could weaken the body’s ability to resist infection. A 2014 study conducted by the US Army examined the impact of exposure that recruits had to a common riot-control agent known as CS gas or tear gas. The study found that those exposed to tear gas had a substantial risk of developing respiratory illness. The letter, therefore, calls for police to stop using chemical irritants and smoke to subdue demonstrators.
Other scientists have also explained the risks of using such riot-control agents. “There is no doubt that mass gatherings facilitate transmission. Wearing masks and protesting outdoors has to help, but shouting, tear gas, pepper spray, and closely packed jails will increase transmission potential. Police must seek responses that minimize transmission potential. Current responses of tear gas, pepper spray, and jailing after curfew are actively exacerbating it. Deescalation is even more critical in light of Covid-19,” tweeted Dr Trevor Bedford, an infectious-disease expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Dr Carl Bergstrom, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, also tweeted, “Police tactics, from tear gas to pepper spray to kettling to incarceration of demonstrators, exacerbate matters substantially. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has the right idea in suspending the use of tear gas for the coming month. Especially in areas without aggressive police responses, I do not expect a greater burst of Covid-19 transmission due to protest than due to reopening activity, for example, though as with everything in science I could end up being wrong about this.” He added, “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right and even responsibility of all Americans. No cause is more pressing than the racial disparities we face in America today.”
The letter, meanwhile, focuses on techniques to reduce harm to people protesting racial injustice, while emphasizing that white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19. “Covid-19 among black patients is yet another lethal manifestation of white supremacy. In addressing demonstrations against white supremacy, our first statement must be one of unwavering support for those who would dismantle, uproot, or reform racist institutions,” says the letter.
The experts say protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 on black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported. “Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of Covid-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and the threatened health specifically of black people in the US. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders,” it says.
The experts recommend that the “health of protesters” must be supported by encouraging the use of face coverings, maintaining at least 6 feet between protesters, where possible, and demonstrating consistently alongside close contacts and moving together as a group, rather than extensively intermingling with multiple groups. “(We) reject messaging that face coverings are motivated by concealment and instead celebrate face coverings as protective of the public’s health in the context of Covid-19,” they say.
The experts advocate that protesters must not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for Covid-19 transmission.
The letter also calls for preparing for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest. “Provide increased access to testing and care for people in the affected communities, especially when they or their family members put themselves at risk by attending protests. (We) demand that law enforcement officials also respect infection prevention recommendations by maintaining distance from protesters and wearing masks,” it says.
Among other strategies to reduce harm, the letter says that people can encourage allies who want to facilitate safe demonstrations by providing masks, hand-washing stations, or hand sanitizer to demonstrators, and providing eye protection such as face shields or goggles, for protection against Covid-19 and chemical irritants used to disperse crowds. It recommends that providing chalk markings or other designations to encourage appropriate distancing between protesters, and supplying ropes, which can be knotted at 6-foot intervals, to allow people to march together while maintaining spacing.
“It is our sincere hope that all participants will be able to follow these suggestions for safer public demonstrations, assisted by allies where possible and necessary, but we recognize that this may not always be the case. Even so, we continue to support demonstrators who are tackling the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism,” says the letter.