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Dr. David Eisenman, professor of community health sciences, Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology; and Dr. Jonathan Fielding, distinguished professor-in-residence of health policy and management, signed an open letter along with public health experts from across the University of California calling on law enforcement to curb the use of chemical agents on crowds.
Civil unrest over George Floyd’s murder during this SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will increase community transmission of this highly contagious virus and contribute to increased incidence of morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. Any large gathering creates risk for transmission. This risk impacts all participants in protests, including protestors, law enforcement officers, journalists, and bystanders. While many have urged protestors to wear facemasks to reduce virus spread, no specific, written safety recommendations for these activities have been developed to mitigate risk or to plan for an outbreak among anyone who attends, as well as their household members. Moreover, protestors themselves do not control all of the factors contributing to risk. For example, law enforcement officials control rules of engagement, including the circumstances when booking and incarceration are employed rather than citation. Public health authorities perform or facilitate testing, early diagnosis, contact tracing, and treatment. All of these actions can reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19. We invite all stakeholders to engage in these considerations and discuss what they can do to reduce transmission in their communities, agencies, and jurisdictions.
The right to join others in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. Speech and assembly are core Constitutional First Amendment freedoms. Protests against injustice are an essential activity to call attention to and combat civil rights violations and structural racism. As abstinence in the form of strict adherence to stay-at-home orders is widely viewed as an unacceptable response, tantamount to silence or inaction, harm reduction during and following these protests will reduce the risk of SARS-COV-2 spread in our communities. The responsibility of law enforcement officials to uphold the law includes the responsibility to protect the rights of individuals to assemble.
Epidemiological studies show that large, crowded, and loudly expressive events that involve shouting or singing increase the spread of SARS-COV-2, causing COVID-19 outbreaks. Recent studies show as many as 80% of infected cases are asymptomatic, making close physical proximity to potentially infected individuals dangerous. In addition, CDC has long warned that sneezing and coughing also significantly spread the virus. Asymptomatically infected people are unaware of their contagiousness, but nonetheless spread the virus. The series of recommendations below may reduce harm by decreasing the transmission of the virus during civil rights protests, with a focus on the role of protesters and observers, law enforcement personnel, and public health officials.