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NYPD Pepper Spray Use in George Floyd Protests May Hasten New COVID Wave, Experts Warn

New York City health care professionals worry about a spike in coronavirus cases fueled by mass gatherings and chemical crowd-control agents.

A protester has liquid around his eyes after being pepper sprayed.
A protester has liquid around his eyes after being pepper sprayed.
a katz/Shutterstock

Pepper spray may work well for dispersing crowds, but so-called aerosolized chemical agents may also hasten a second wave of coronavirus, city health experts warn.

“It is certainly possible that crowds who are exposed to pepper spray or similar compounds will remove their masks and cough, aerosolizing potentially infectious droplets,” Dr. Ian Wittman, chief of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Hospital - Brooklyn, told THE CITY.

“Mass gatherings have the potential to spread infectious pathogens,” Wittman added. “Wearing masks and distancing from others likely lowers the risk of transmission.”

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, agreed.

“Aerosols produced by dense clouds of tear gas — in the proximity of large crowds with lack of social distancing and face coverings — could potentially increase transmission of coronavirus, hastening a second wave,” Glatter said. “Such is also the case for pepper spray dispersed by canisters in aerosol form.”

The doctors weighed in as the city entered its seventh night of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and a third night of curfew.

They and other health care professionals are bracing for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases fueled by mass gatherings and the use of chemical crowd-control agents.

‘Worst Pain Ever’

At marches throughout the city, protesters including State Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Diana Richardson (D-Brooklyn) have complained of cops indiscriminately dousing crowds with pepper spray.

In one video from Saturday shared widely on social media, an NYPD officer is seen pulling down a protester’s mask and spraying him in the face.

Oleoresin capsicum (OC) pepper spray is made from a concentrated form of the same inflammatory chemical that adds heat to chili peppers. Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention bans its use in war.

“It was physically the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Devin Khan, 22, a Brooklyn protester sprayed after crossing the Manhattan Bridge on Saturday. “I was on fire. The mace, the pepper spray, burns and it feels like the air is being sucked out of your lungs by a vacuum.”

Thousands of protesters filled the streets around Barclays Center during continued police brutality protests, June 2, 2020.
Thousands of protesters filled the streets around Barclays Center during continued police brutality protests, June 2, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Police Department said that they only use pepper spray, and not tear gas, but did not respond to questions on the exact tactics used on protesters and whether they were advisable during a respiratory disease global pandemic.

The Tactical Operations section of the NYPD Patrol Guide, written before the coronavirus crisis, notes, “In many cases, O.C. pepper spray will reduce or eliminate the need for physical force to effect an arrest or gain custody. It will often reduce the potential for injuries to members and suspects that may result from physical restraint.”

The guide goes on to caution officers, however, “If possible, avoid using O.C. pepper spray on persons who appear to be in frail health, young children, women believed to be pregnant, or persons with known respiratory conditions. Avoid discharging O.C. pepper spray indiscriminately over a large area for disorder control.”

‘Just Common Sense’

Daniel Bellevue, a respiratory therapist at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, stressed that he recognized Americans’ fundamental right to peaceful protest, “but it’s a thousand percent exacerbating the COVID problem.”

A man wears mask and gloves at police-brutality protest in Manhattan, May 31, 2020.
A man wears mask and gloves at police-brutality protest in Manhattan, May 31, 2020.
Christine Chung/THE CITY

“It’s just common sense,” said Bellevue, 43, a 17-year health care veteran who has been on the front lines intubating COVID-19 patients during the peak of the city’s crisis. “If you spray something like pepper spray or tear gas, you are agitating the respiratory mechanism of protesters and causing them to forcibly cough out the irritant into the atmosphere.”

Coughing and gagging enables the virus to hop from person to person when respiratory droplets produced by an infected person’s cough, sneeze or shout land in the mouths or noses of those nearby.

“You’ve got people who may be COVID-positive but not even know they’re carriers, and they’re out there congregating and spreading the virus to all the other people nearby,” Bellevue said. “This is why health care workers have such strong concerns about a premature second wave.”

Reopening Concerns

Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged the risk of protests accelerating the spread of contagion.

“We’re talking about reopening in one week in New York City and now we’re seeing these mass gatherings over the past several nights that could in fact exacerbate the COVID-19 spread,” Cuomo said Monday.

Still, some public health officials view the protests as a necessary means of drawing attention to racial inequities that have left people of color at greater risk of contracting the virus.

Infectious disease experts at the University of Washington penned a letter stressing that “protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tweeted protest tips on Saturday to minimize the risk of spreading the virus — advising protesters to wear face masks and eye protection, use hand sanitizer, toot noisemakers instead of yelling, and maintain social distance.

Michael Greco, vice president of the FDNY EMS union, Local 2507, called the use of aerosolized defense products “a concern” during the coronavirus pandemic. At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, EMS dealt with the highest three-day volume of calls in FDNY history.

“The fear of the second wave, even if it never comes, is enough to make you not sleep at night,” Greco said, adding he would not question the NYPD’s current crowd-control tactics.

“Just as I wouldn’t want them to explain to our members the best way to respond to a cardiac incident, I wouldn’t dream of trying to tell PD the most efficient way to take care of a civil disturbance,” he said. “If we have to deal with the medical fallout, we will treat protesters, police officers, anyone, without judgment.”

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