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Tips from a doctor: How to stay safe protesting during a pandemic

Doctor Natasha Bhuyan of One Medical offers tips for how demonstrators can protect themselves and others while standing up for what they believe in.

PORTLAND, Oregon — There have been protests in Portland for 60 days now and the demonstrations show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Unfortunately, neither does the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protesting can be dangerous even when the world isn't in the middle of a pandemic. In the past few months, there have been many examples of local police and federal officers using chemical gases, rubber bullets and other types of less-than-lethal force on protesters in Portland.

But there are steps you can take to protect yourself if you are heading out to join the demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality.

Doctor Natasha Bhuyan is the Regional Medical Director for One Medical. She wrote a blog post about best practices while protesting.

Her tips speak specifically to protesting during a pandemic, but most of Dr. Bhuyan's advice applies to protests with or without a global pandemic. She says COVID-19 does not add a lot of danger to protesting.

"For most people, they are able to go to protests safely as long as they are wearing a mask," said Dr. Bhuyan. "That messaging I feel like gets really diluted, and people feel like, 'COVID-19 is surging because of protests,' and COVID-19 is not surging because of protests. Those are not the hot spots."

So here are Dr. Bhuyan's tips for staying safe while protesting.

What to do before heading out:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants to cover skin
  • Don't wear contact lenses - wear glasses, googles or face shields instead to protect your eyes
  • Avoid wearing makeup - tear gas can cling to mascara and lipstick

Things to bring with you:

  • A face mask - to protect from COVID-19 and from tear gas and pepper spray
  • Water - to stay hydrated and use to flush out tear gas
  • Snacks - you may be out for many hours

Things to keep in mind while out on the streets:

  • Use the buddy system - have someone with you to keep tabs on each other and be there in case things get violent or one of you is arrested
  • Be aware of your surroundings - know where you can escape if you need to
  • Maintain 6-foot distance from others when possible

What to do if you are exposed to chemical gases:

  • Try not to panic - rubbing your face can make symptoms worse
  • Leave the dangerous zone and get to a safe place
  • Use cool water to flush out the chemicals in your eyes
  • If you are hit with pepper spray, use diluted baby shampoo
  • Evaluate your wounds or any damage
  • Seek medical attention for any persistent pain or symptoms following the protest, including:
    • If it has been longer than 30 minutes and you're still having vision issues
    • If it's been longer than 15 minutes and you're still having trouble breathing
    • If it's been longer than a few hours and your skin is still irritated

What to do if you are hit with less-than-lethal munitions, such as rubber bullets:

  • Leave the dangerous zone and get to a safe place
  • Look at your skin and see what was punctured
  • Clean the area with soap and water
  • If punctured, seek medical attention, because the wound is at-risk of an infection

What to do when you get home:

  • Take a shower and wash any clothes you were wearing, including your mask
  • Debrief about your experience - process your feelings by talking to a friend, journaling or engaging in self-care

Do you need to get a COVID-19 test after protesting?

Dr. Bhuyan says, "If you're at a protest and you're wearing a mask and the people around you are wearing a mask, in that case, it's actually not necessary to get a COVID-19 test.

"On the other hand, if you think you were somewhere that was high-risk and people around you weren't wearing a mask, and you weren't wearing a mask, and your'e worried about being exposed to COVID-19, it's a good idea to get a test. We generally tell people to test four to seven days after an exposure in order to build up that viral load."

For people who are immunocompromised or in a high-risk group for COVID-19, Dr. Bhuyan recommends supporting the protesters from afar through virtual events, donations and coordination efforts.

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