Public health experts urge police to stop using tear gas during coronavirus pandemic

Doctors say the gas can damage the respiratory system and aggravate COVID-19 symptoms or aid spread of the disease

OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 1: Protesters run away as police shoot tear gas and flash grenades to disperse the crowd on Broadway near the Oakland Police Department during the fourth day of protests over George Floyd’s death by the Minneapolis police in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Vallejo Times-Herald, By Emily DeRuy, June 2, 2020

Public health experts are calling on police to stop using tear gas on people protesting the death of George Floyd.

An online petition started at the University of Washington and created with Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, opposes the use of tear gas, suggesting it could “increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”

Thousands of people have poured onto streets from Walnut Creek to San Jose in demonstrations sparked by Floyd’s death and video of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Those demonstrations have been met by tear gas, rubber bullets, batons and other measures from police.

While some health officials have worried the crowded demonstrations could spread COVID-19, the petition endorses the protests “as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”

The document encourages protestors to wear face coverings and stay six feet apart if possible. It also calls on police to avoid arresting and holding protestors in confined spaces like jails and police vans, “which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission.”

Santa Clara County is urging people who attend protests to get tested for the virus within a few days. The county has opened free testing sites available to anyone regardless of whether they have symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prolonged exposure to a large dose of riot control agent like tear gas can have serious consequences, including respiratory failure possibly resulting in death.

Echoing the petition, a UCLA professor of medicine and public health told LAist he was especially worried about the potential harm caused when law enforcement officers rely on the gas.

“During this time when we’re protesting police brutality, the use of tear gas is causing more harm in the way of spreading COVID,” the professor, David Eisenman, told the news outlet. “There is some culpability on the police for using this method, which increases the sneezing and increases the coughing and therefore increases the spread.”