Thousands of people filled the streets of Minneapolis this week to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer choked him with his knee. As those protests carry over into their fourth night, public health experts warned that mass gatherings — no matter how urgent — were ripe ground for the spread of the coronavirus, and participants should use extra safety measures.
“Protests against racist violence including the murder of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd involve being in large crowds of people,” Brandon Brown, who teaches public health at the University of California, Riverside told BuzzFeed News. “During this pandemic, if you are not able to use proper prevention measures including physical distancing and wearing masks, you put yourself at higher risk for COVID-19.”
Wearing a mask and keeping at least 6 feet away from other protesters is key, Brown said.
Dr. John Swartzberg, whose work at UC Berkeley focuses on infectious diseases, told BuzzFeed News he recommended wearing glasses, goggles, or another form of eye protection to try to prevent droplets of the disease entering through the eye, which some research suggests could be possible.
“We don’t know how important a face shield is or goggles are,” Swartzberg said, “but we think it’s sufficiently important that we have healthcare workers wear a face shield.”
Another issue is that yelling thrusts more droplets of the disease into the air, increasing the chance of infection. Swartzberg pointed to an infamous soccer match in Italy that became the epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak when fans in close proximity cheered on their favorite team and embraced each other when they won. “Screaming is going to expel lots more particles with a lot more force,” he said.
Then there’s tear gas, a weapon used by police forces for crowd control worldwide. According to Sven Eric Jordt, associate professor in anesthesiology at Duke University, tear gas can damage the respiratory system, which the coronavirus also attacks.
“This is really a chemical weapon, right? And it’s designed to induce pain,” he told BuzzFeed News.
The most important thing to do if you’ve been exposed to tear gas, Jordt said, is to move away from the source as quickly as possible. At first, someone affected by it will feel pain in their throat and face. Some people’s eyes shut involuntarily as a reaction to it. There will be a lot of mucus production in the lungs, so there would be a lot of coughing. It may eventually lead to feelings of anxiety and asphyxiation, and gasping for breath is common.
“If a person has, let’s say, a heart condition or asthma, they can experience much more severe responses like asthma attacks or a risk of hospitalization,” Jordt said. “There have been cardiovascular issues described that probably related to a heart attack. Those are very rare but have been described in the literature.”
One viral tweet with over a quarter of a million retweets advises people to counteract tear gas with baking soda diluted in water. Jordt said that method could work but has potentially dangerous effects, including irritating skin, sensitive areas, and any possible wounds. A better method would be to use water and, if possible, to change clothes and have a shower.
“If you remove yourself from the source and can rinse and change clothing, the symptoms really subside after some of an hour or several hours,” he said. “However, if you have high exposure and risk with burns on the eyes and skin, this can take days or weeks to heal. And many people become very sensitive over time.”
It’s still unknown how damage from tear gas could affect someone who has COVID-19, but Jordt pointed to studies from the US Army that showed that recruits who had been exposed to tear gas were more prone to respiratory infections, like colds and the flu.
“We see this militarization and more and more use of tear gas much earlier than before,” he said. “I’m very concerned this is a continuing escalation and that not only in Hong Kong or other countries, but now in the US, too. So I’m advocating for really reassessing tear gas after seeing what toxicological effects it can have.”
Brown says that protesters must be informed of the public health effects of both the pandemic and the violence against vulnerable groups in the US face.
“Be aware of the disproportional death rates for African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx people from both COVID-19 and police violence,” Brown said.