Peruvian First Response to Hazardous Biological Materials: COVID-19

By José Zea Aguero

Founder and President of the Chemical Information Center of Peru (CINQUI)

If the COVID-19 crisis has proven something, it is that most countries were not prepared to properly respond to a pandemic and that in fact, a majority of states never anticipated and prepared their health systems to respond to such an event.

In that sense, I would like to take the opportunity I have been given through the writing of this article to enlighten the hard work of the national teams of first responders, including firefighters, police forces and defense (air force, navy and army) and to highlight their lack of preparedness to respond to a biological hazard.

Indeed, when asking ourselves the question of whether the emergency services, firefighters, Hazmat teams and other first responders, had ever been trained on strategic, tactical and operational levels and, as such, were prepared to respond to such an event, the answer is clear: no. Nobody had anticipated such a scenario, and no one could have imagined, when thinking about hazard identification and risk assessment, such a case of pandemic or massive health emergency. Nevertheless, this type of emergency has now become a reality that hit South America’s teams of first responders who, with a strong sense of duty, had to adapt to face on a daily basis this new threat that has now become the norm and indiscriminately threatens every citizen in every country.

Firefighters are on the frontline of the fight against the threat

Firefighters are on the frontline of the fight against the threat and are developing their knowledge on a daily basis in an intent to better understand and response to this invisible enemy called COVID-19. To do so, they have to go through completely new process to develop and implement new procedures, new protocols whether regarding decontamination measures or appropriate personal protective equipment. One thing to keep in mind is that, while fighting against COVID-19 and implementing basic security measures to limit the spread of the virus, rescuers, firefighters and other emergency services first responders also have to respond to daily conventional threats that are still affecting the country. Another point worth mentioning is that in the initial steps of the response to this crisis, the latter was not apprehended as a biological hazardous emergency, but more as a sanitary emergency. Indeed, the response to a biological event calls for a different planning including logistical planning, protective devices, decontamination systems, command and control systems and communication, but also an approach to medical and pre-hospital control. Yet, the first response to this crisis showed a clear lack of articulation between these different components and, more generally, a real lack of protection of the population. In Peru, from the 553,302 persons tested until May 13, 477,196 ended up being negative. Among the 76,306 cases of COVID-19 that have been confirmed, 6,979 were hospitalized and 2,169 died. These numbers are alarming and increase every day as the country has still not reached its peak yet and has not managed to flatten the curve. Facing this reality, institutions such as the General Corps of Volunteer Firefighters of Peru, the police forces and the army keep fighting in a continuous battle against COVID-19. A significant number of first responders and law enforcement officials have already been infected and some anonymous heroes have passed away while fighting this invisible enemy. Though the situation remains uncertain and unpredictable, I would like to highlight the work of these people who accomplish their duty by watching and protecting their country’s citizens, along with the health personnel who succeeds in maintaining the emergency services operational 24/7 despite the current danger threatening the population.

Founder and President of the Chemical Information Center of Peru (CINQUI), José Zea Aguero is an expert in Prevention, Operation, Emergency Response in Hazmat CBRNe and WMD. He has a background is Sciences studies (Chemical) and has followed various training and consulting activities with several international bodies, including the OPCW, USAID OFDA. He is also the chairman of the NCT events organized in South America by the CBRNe Society.