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Using tear gas or pepper spray to subdue protesters will only help spread the coronavirus in the middle of a pandemic, infectious disease experts warn, urging law enforcement to abandon the practice for public health reasons.

Spraying people with tear gas causes them to cough, shout and scream – and that will send infectious droplets from an infected person to others, said Dr Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Tear gas billows as demonstrators gather in Lafayette Park, near the White House.Credit:Alex Brandon

Tear gas may cause people who are wearing masks to take them off, and prompt them to rub their eyes, nose and mouth, Chin-Hong said. Even worse, respiratory irritants inflame the inside of the nose and mouth and the lining of lung tissues, making the body more susceptible to infection, he said.

Chin-Hong was one of more than 1000 people – among them infectious disease and public health experts – who have signed a petition asking local and state governments to stop using tear gas, smoke and other respiratory irritants that increase the risk for coronavirus transmission by inducing coughing. The petition was inspired by a group from the University of Washington, and Chin-Hong said he was contacted to edit the letter.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is different from many other infectious diseases because people can experience either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all yet can easily transmit the virus to others, Chin-Hong said.

“It’s easier to spread because people don’t know they’re sick,” he said.


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