At Protests, Street Medics Take COVID-19 Precautions

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) – As protests and violence by police and others continue, physicians, EMTs and other medical professionals have stepped up to provide front line care for demonstrators. Many of these volunteers call themselves street medics.

In a nod to the Red Cross, they’re recognizable by the red tape or arm bands they wear. The insignia signals to protesters that medical assistance is nearby.

A street medic at a protest at the Broome County jail sports red tape, a common way street medics show protesters they’re there to help. Photo by Jillian Forstadt/WSKG News

It’s a general rule among street medics that they don’t speak to reporters or share their names with the media.  They fear police retribution.

Recent reports from the New York Times and USA Today show several instances of police violence directed at street medics. In Asheville, N.C., police destroyed a street clinic set up by medics, tipping over tables of medical supplies and water.

At a recent protest in Binghamton, however, a trained street medic spoke with WSKG.  She requested and was granted anonymity.

“For the most part we focus on keeping people safe,” the street medic said. “Obviously there are a lot of tragedies going around the country and our primary goal is keeping people safe, whether that be making sure they’re wearing masks, or if someone falls and gets hurt, or any number of different kinds of ailments that affects people.”

Street medicine has a long history, with roots that can be traced back to the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which was founded in 1964 to provide first aid to demonstrators during the civil rights movement.

Since then, groups have organized in cities throughout the world, and many more have formed since the start of the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. In Rochester, a street medic collective was recently revived, and a street medic team in Buffalo is on social media and hosting trainings.

At Binghamton’s protests, a loosely-organized team of street medics handed out masks, snacks and water, and repeatedly checked on participants to see who might need help. Many medics carried first aid kits, as well as disinfectants.

However, the supplies they need vary by city. In places where police use tear gas and other chemical irritants, some medics carry extra goggles and antacids to wash out a protester’s eyes.

COVID-19 poses yet another health risk at protests, adding to the burden street medics bear. Many work to ensure all protesters have and wear masks.

“Thankfully most people are complying with that, but sometimes it’s difficult making sure that people want to wear the masks,” said the street medic who spoke with WSKG in Binghamton.

“We know they’re uncomfortable but they make sure that everyone stays safe and disease free.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently expanded COVID-19 testing criteria to anyone who has attended a protest.

When it comes to taking precautions at protests, street medics recommend practicing social distancing, especially during chants and cheers because speaking loudly can release more droplets that transmit the virus.

Street medics also suggest that people who feel sick or show symptoms of COVID-19 stay home and find other ways to protest.