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How Do You Stay Healthy & Safe at a Protest During a Pandemic?

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Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistJune 04, 2020

The death of George Floyd has sparked a movement to demand justice with  Black Lives Matter protests happening around the country. If you want to join the demonstrations, but are hesitant because of concerns for your safety and health you’re not alone. Being in a crowd in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is a major risk. Add to that the fear of violence and the heat of June, it’s good you’re making a thoughtful decision.

If you want to go, here are tips to stay safe and healthy while you’re out:

Protect yourself and others

Don’t leave your home if you are sick with a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19.  In a mass gathering, it’s going to be difficult to maintain social distancing measures, and you could easily spread the illness to others. You’re also at high risk for catching COVID-19 when you’re out. Plan to quarantine yourself for 14 days after the protests.  

Also, before you make a decision to go, consider your risk for serious complications if you become sick from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While most people have a mild illness, anyone can become critically ill, in particular people 65 and older, or those with a chronic illness including heart or lung disease, diabetes, obesity or cancer.

Plan for safety

To stay safe, go with a friend or a small group and make sure you’re all on the same page when it comes to the details.  How are you travelling back and forth from the protest? Do you have a group chat set up to communicate easily? Identify where there are first aid stations and places you can stop for a bathroom break.

Unfortunately, the threat of a peaceful demonstration turning chaotic is real. To stay safe, consider going earlier in the day and avoiding areas where there’s been violence.  Decide on where to meet up if you’re separated from your group.

Wear protective gear

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19 you must wear a face mask. Choose one that is snug and comfortable. If you have access to a medical or construction N95 mask, this is the time to use it given your close proximity to others. You should only take it off when you eat or drink something. Plan to keep it on at all times otherwise.

Consider wearing a face shield  as an added layer over your facemask. It can offer protection for your eyes and it’ll help keep your facemask clean and prevent you from touching your face with dirty hands. Choose a face shield with clear plastic that extends across your face to both ears, and down well below the chin. There should be no gap between your forehead and the headpiece.

There is a risk of injury you need to be prepared for whether it’s from an accidental fall or intentional violence from something like rubber bullets. Wear a hat and covered clothing to protect your skin from injury and the sun.  Choose comfortable walking shoes that are closed-toe to protect against debris on the roads.  Don’t wear anything that can be easily grabbed like loose jewelry.

You could be exposed to tear gas or pepper spray. Your mask, face shield, hat, covered clothing and close toe shoes will all help cut your direct exposure to these chemicals and decrease the severe burning sensation and irritation that can occur in your eyes, skin and lungs.  Avoid sunscreen, makeup and contact lenses, these can all trap the chemicals and worsen irritation.

Pack supplies  

Plan for a day much longer than you anticipate. Bring water to drink and snacks to eat because there may not be stores open for you to enter. To stop the spread of infection bring (and use often) hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Be prepared with any medicines you can’t be without, especially if you might need emergency medications like an epinephrine auto injector or your inhaler.   And, definitely don’t leave home without extra cash, emergency contact information written on paper or by permanent marker on your body, and a charger with your phone.

A simple first aid kit with Band-Aids, gloves and water or saline is also a good idea.  If you are exposed to tear gas or pepper spray, you’ll want to move to a higher ground towards fresh air and get to a first aid station. Don’t rub your eyes. Instead, rinse your eyes and skin with clean water or saline. When you can, wash with gentle soap and soothe the burning skin with an ice pack.  I see recommendations online to use milk or baking soda solutions, but those aren’t hygienic and pose an infection risk. Apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and charcoal dust are also not helpful.

Be as safe as possible

While you’re at the protest stay with your group and stay alert to your surroundings. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t feel safe.

To decrease your risk of COVID-19, keep your face mask and shield on securely. Your highest risk is from respiratory droplets from others, move away from anyone speaking without a mask. Remember not to lean in to shake hands or give a hug. Solidarity is shown by your presence, not by your touch. Try to maintain a 6 foot distance all around you. I know it’s difficult, but there’s a real risk that these mass gatherings will result in more people sick with COVID-19. Some sites are recommending ribbon or chalk to mark your physical space when standing– just don’t use anything that could be thought of as a weapon.

Next steps at home

When you reach home, safely I hope, shower and wash your clothes.

Your risk of exposure to COVID-19 was high at the protest so plan to be in quarantine for 14 days. Stay home, keep a minimum 6 feet distance from others, and monitor for symptoms. Check your local or state public health department for instructions about testing for the COVID-19 virus. You should wait about 5 days after exposure to minimize false results.

While you’re at home take time to reflect on your  experience in this important moment of history. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and professionals for support as you unpack your thoughts and feelings. You’ll be stronger for it as you plan your next action steps for the Black Lives Matter movement.

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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