4 Ways the Police Response to Protests Could Contribute to the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the anti-racism protests across the country continue, some experts worry that they’ll contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. But the police response to the protests—which so far has included tear gas, less-lethal rounds, and crowding protestors together—is also likely to lead to more coronavirus infections. Here are four specific ways that the police response to protests is contributing to the pandemic:

1. The use of tear gas.

Tear gas, pepper spray, and the like are chemical irritants that cause intense burning, stinging, and pain in the ears and respiratory tract, SELF explained recently. If you’re exposed, you’ll probably find yourself coughing and wheezing, which increases the likelihood of spreading viral particles if you’re infected, Timothy Brewer, Ph.D., professor of medicine, division of infectious diseases, at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, tells SELF.

“Anything that irritates people’s respiratory systems and causes them to cough or sneeze, if they’re infected with COVID-19, will increase the possibility that they’re shedding respiratory droplets around them,” Brewer says, which then makes it more likely for those particles to go on and infect someone else if people are nearby. This is the main worry for public health experts, Amesh Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells SELF.

But it’s not just the coughing that tear gas exposure causes—if you’re sprayed with a chemical irritant like that, you might be tempted to pull down your mask to cough or to get rid of it because it’s now contaminated with the irritant. You might also rub your eyes because they’re irritated, which we know is not recommended because, if you touched something that had viral particles on it, you could now be putting those directly in your eyes. Other people might also, understandably, come over to you to help flush your eyes or skin, which means they’ll be easier to infect if you’re spreading viral particles.

“All of that potentially could facilitate virus transmission,” Brewer says.

2. Crowding people together.

The main factors that contribute to transmission are how close people are together and how long they’re together, Brewer says. Protests are already a mass gathering of people, which means attending one means taking on some amount of risk—even though they’re outdoors. One way to lower your risk of exposure and transmission at a protest is to attempt to keep some physical distance from others, if possible.

But we’ve seen police “kettle” people together, meaning to corner them and force them to stop for a long period of time, which only amplifies the coronavirus risk, Brewer says.

3. Detaining people for long periods of time.

Thousands of protestors across the country were arrested over the past two weeks in the U.S., a process that inherently means keeping them in close quarters for extended periods of time, whether that’s on a bus or in a jail cell.

This forces people to be in a small, enclosed space potentially for a long period of time with other people, which increases the risk that the coronavirus will spread. Additionally, a judge in New York City effectively suspended habeas corpus in the city, which means that someone can be held in detention without an official charge for over 24 hours.

4. Not wearing facial coverings.

We know that masks are most helpful for preventing the wearer from potentially spreading viral particles to others, not necessarily for protecting the wearer from other people’s particles, Dr. Adalja says. That’s crucial especially in the case of people who may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic, meaning that their symptoms are mild or nonexistent, so they may not know they’re sick.

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