Arrests, Tear Gas May Be Bigger COVID-19 Worry Than Protests

By: - June 5, 2020 12:00 am

Police disperse protesters by blanketing streets with tear gas on the fifth night of action against police brutality in Portland, Oregon. Health experts say the widespread use of tear gas could make victims more likely to contract COVID-19. Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images

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SEATTLE — As demonstrators turn out en masse to protest police brutality against black people in cities across the country, many observers have worried about a resurgence of COVID-19. But some public health experts say the actions of police — tear-gassing protesters, arresting thousands and boxing protests into confined areas — may do more to contribute to the spread of the virus.

“The biggest concern for transmission at these protests is coming from the actions of the police,” said Dr. Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, in an email to Stateline. “Arresting people, packing them into transport vans and buses, and crowding them into cells are all very harmful from a transmission perspective.”

According to Buzzfeed, which surveyed 30 local police departments across the country, authorities have arrested at least 11,000 protesters in just over a week, a partial count of the nationwide total. Jails had become outbreak centers for COVID-19 even before the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and the processing of thousands of protesters has health experts concerned. 

“Another thing not safe — jails,” tweeted Andy Slavitt, a former health care adviser to President Barack Obama and acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Non-violent protesters should be going nowhere near a jail.”

Dr. Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was surprised to hear the Buzzfeed tally. 

“I had no idea it was anywhere close to that,” he said in an interview. “It has concerned me that some of these people were being put into buses and then undoubtedly placed for some period of time in holding cells. We know that jails and prisons have been the focus of the spread of the virus.

“When so many people are taken into custody over a short period of time, even if the local jails and the night courts and such had attempted some form of social distancing,” he said, “it’s likely that in many cases they would have been swamped.”

The four largest outbreaks tracked by The New York Times are in correctional facilities. 

Anna Flagg, a senior data reporter with The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit, studies the criminal justice system, including during the pandemic. She said there’s not yet enough data on COVID-19 to compare the relative risks of mass protests and arrests. 

“From a common-sense point of view, it’s much more dangerous to bring people into jails than it is for people to be out in the streets protesting,” Flagg said in an interview. “[Transmission] is about being close to people in enclosed spaces with dense populations and being in a place where you can’t wash your hands.”

According to a May report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit, the typical jail has reduced its population by 31% to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Prisons have seen much smaller release numbers, typically 5%. Some jurisdictions are seeking to avoid incarcerating people who don’t pose a threat to others. While some in the protest crowds have become destructive, arresting others simply on charges of violating curfew counteracts efforts to reduce the risk of infection in jails, Flagg added.

“These are people who are trying to engage in protest,” she said. “It seems like a clear-cut situation where these people don’t need to be brought into jail.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.