Infectious disease specialists call for an end to tear gas during COVID-19 pandemic

Infectious disease specialists are circulating an online petition calling for police to stop using tear gas to disperse crowds during the coronavirus pandemic who are coming out in droves to mourn the death of George Floyd and decry police brutality. 

While the doctors say they support the peaceful protesters, they are calling on police to use "public health best practices" during demonstrations.

The University of Washington created the petition, while University of California at San Francisco infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, helped craft the science behind it. 

Tear gas, first used during WWI, causes people to cough, Chin-Hong said in an interview. And coughing during a pandemic is not a good thing. 

"When you bring together a lot of people, like at a stadium or a protest, the virus goes from people's noses to mouths in droplets," he said. 

When people are in these crowded and emotional settings, they tend to shout and "project the virus more than three feet," he said. 

So, anyone with coronavirus will be more apt to spread it, he said, and anyone else will likely become more susceptible to catching the virus. 

What also makes matters worse, he said, is that people are with each other at protests for prolonged periods of time in close conditions, which means that there is more of a likely chance for someone to contract the disease. 

"These small risks can add up," he said. 

The doctors also say that protesters should not be held in police vans and jails, which have some of the highest risk areas for coronavirus transmission.

Police across the country have been using tear gas to disperse protests, some of which have turned violent because Floyd, a black man, was killed when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck. 

While many of the protests are peaceful or at least start off that way, others have turned violent with looting and vandalism, prompting many cities to issue recent curfews. 

On Monday, Oakland police used tear gas following a youth march when they said some people threw bottles at them; and U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops in Washington, D.C., used the gas to move crowds of peaceful protesters so that President Donald Trump could walk safely and have his picture taken holding a Bible at a nearby church.

There were about 15,000 people at the peak of the Oakland demonstration, police said. High school senior Samuel Getachew said he and his friends suffered the effects of getting tear gassed in front of the Oakland police station. Many people at the Oakland rally was wearing a face mask. 

The petition also takes on a political tone, noting that not only have racism and systemic oppression disproportionately affected the Black community, so has COVID-19. 

Two years ago, the ACLU wrote a blog post noting that tear gas has been outlawed as a method of warfare on the battlefield by almost every country in the world, but that ban does not apply to domestic U.S. law enforcement officers. 

On Monday, Trump countered that he would deploy the military against protesters if local officials could not or would not stop the looting and vandalism that has erupted across the country. 

If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," Trump said. 

Trump made the announcement amid the backdrop of tear gas and flash bangs on the other side of the White House.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez