As people take to the streets in protest during the COVID-19 pandemic, Keck Medicine of USC experts share advice on how the public can protect both their mental well-being and physical health during this time.
The importance of acknowledging the trauma many Americans experience
“During this time when the American public is already mentally stretched thin due to the stresses of COVID-19, the expression of national outrage is a normal and understandable response. During turmoil, as always, it is key that we acknowledge and address all forms of trauma, including the psychological trauma caused by racism. The recent events leading up to protests nationwide have made the call for mental health support all the more urgent across all communities.”
Steven Siegel, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He recently launched the Care for the Caregiver program, which offers mental health support for Keck Medicine health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Safety tips for protesting in a pandemic
Protests, which often put people in close contact with others for extended periods of time, pose the risk of increasing transmission of COVID-19 if physical distancing and hand hygiene are forgone. While being outside may dilute the virus, especially if the wind is blowing, it’s still important to take basic precautions to reduce the risk of COVID-19:
- Avoid close contact whenever possible and maintain a distance of at least six feet between you and others.
- Sanitize your hands, either with soap and water or hand sanitizer, regularly and immediately after touching someone or something, or coughing or sneezing. Carry hand sanitizer with you at all times.
- Wear a mask or face covering while outside and around people at all times.
- Minimize bringing unnecessary items with you, as you will have less items to disinfect later.
- Wash all clothes and items you wore or brought immediately after returning home.
“After attending a protest, it is also important to closely monitor your health. Keep a close eye out for symptoms such as a cough, fever or chills, shortness of breath, muscle aches, headaches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Call your doctor if these symptoms develop. If you’re sick or have serious preexisting medical conditions, consider alternative ways to support protestors.”
Neha Nanda, MD, is the medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship.
How tear gas affects the respiratory system and eyes
Tear gas causes excessive irritation to the eyes, nose, mouth and upper respiratory system, causing choking, gasping and respiratory secretions. The effects generally last a few minutes, and most will quickly recover. However, for those with underlying lung conditions, the particles can affect the lower airways in the lung and cause bronchospasm and even respiratory failure. This group should seek medical help at a hospital if exposed.
“Coughing is a normal reaction to tear gas, which clears out the lungs, but people should make sure they separate from others when coughing or around those coughing to avoid the spread of COVID-19.”
Richard J. Castriotta, MD, is a pulmonary critical care physician. He is an internationally recognized leader in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine as a clinician, teacher and researcher.
“Tear gas burns the front of the eyes (the cornea), which is the window that allows us to see. If the cornea is burned and scarred, it can lead to blindness. The best thing to do if tear gassed is to flush the eye with water for at least 30 minutes. It’s important to make sure the eye is open when doing so, and that water is getting into the eye, as well as under the eyelid. People should flush the eye immediately and without delay on-site using bottled water, if at all possible.”
Kimberly Gokoffski, MD, PhD, is an ophthalmologist with the USC Roski Eye Institute, Keck Medicine of USC. She has a clinical specialty in neuro-ophthalmology.
Come prepared and seek medical help if needed
Those who peacefully protest should bring a first-aid kit that contains the basics like band-aids and antibiotic ointment, as well as drink plenty of water to guard against dehydration.
“If anyone becomes injured and needs immediate medical help, visit your local emergency department. Emergency departments are open and safe for all urgent and emergency needs. Hospitals are putting numerous safety practices in place to ensure patients are safeguarded from the possible spread of the coronavirus, so people should feel comfortable going there if needed.”
Armand Dorian, MD, MMM, is the chief medical officer of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, overseeing all medical operations at the hospital, including the hospital’s Emergency Department.