VCU doctors urge police to end use of pepper spray, tear gas during pandemic


Protesters outside of Richmond Police Department headquarters (8News video screen grab)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Five Virginia Commonwealth University health doctors are coming together to educate law enforcement about the risks of deploying pepper spray and tear gas in the middle of a pandemic.

The news comes after recent clashes between protesters and police officers have led to the deployment of the chemical agents.

“Me and my colleagues at VCU, we were very disturbed at seeing the tear gas being used on protesters,” said VCU Dermatologist Fnu Nutan. “We have a pandemic going on which is spread by droplets and using tear gas, which is basically, you have the gas under pressure and you open it, it makes the virus more airborne.”

RELATED: Richmond Councilman introducing legislation banning tear gas, rubber bullets

The group, whose actions are their own and not reflective of the university’s medical facility, explained their reasoning behind calls to end the use of tear gas and pepper spray, citing health concerns. On Monday, the group sent a letter to Richmond Police:

Dear Richmond Police Department,

We are currently facing two pandemics. One, of course, is COVID-19. The second is systemic racism, which has been around much longer than COVID-19, and has led to Black Americans having greater morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 and many other health conditions. As physicians are actively treating patients with COVID-19, we urge you to join us to ensure the response to one pandemic does not worsen the effects of the other pandemic. We ask you to eliminate the use of pepper spray and other chemical irritants.

History has shown that meaningful lasting change has been brought about by protests. As you know, the best practices to protect against COVID-19 are mask-wearing and social distancing. Unfortunately, protesting makes social distancing impossible, and protesters must rely solely on wearing masks. 

Because of this, we are horrified to see the use of pepper spray and other chemical irritants against protesters. Pepper spray causes demasking, coughing, and heavy breathing. The use of pepper spray is antithetical to the public health guidance for avoiding COVID-19. Moreover, the use of pepper spray indiscriminately affects all nearby parties, including non-violent protesters, media, bystanders, and other law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement should adhere to clear guidelines when using pepper spray to maintain the welfare of all people. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be only be used as a last resort and with sufficient warning to all individuals present.

David Goldberg, MD

Alan Dow, MD

Nutan Gowda, MD

Sarika Modi, MD

Georgia McIntosh, MD

As of Wednesday, the group has not received a response from police.

VCU Health Physician Georgia McIntosh told 8News the effects of the chemical agents – teary eyes, runny nose, choking, coughing and spitting – can lead to transmitting the virus.

RELATED: Council members condemn Richmond police response, others say protesters are looking for a fight

“We are not telling other folks how to do their job because we are not in law enforcement but pepper spray makes people cough and take off their masks,” McIntosh said.

But a former police chief tells 8News that Richmond Police are in a “difficult situation.”

RELATED: Protesters harmed by tear gas incident filing formal complaints against Richmond Police

“What was done 20 years ago, can’t be done today,” said John Dixon, adding that the use of chemical agents started long before the Richmond riots in an effort to deal with aggressive crowds. “We still work at the will of the people.”

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