Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Victor Velarde admits that there is a fear factor in the work he does.
It’s hard to imagine how there wouldn’t be when he has to wear gear like a hazmat suit to do his job: leading the COVID-19 Response Team in Albuquerque Public Schools.
He and the rest of the team work on the front lines after a case is confirmed in the district as they go into schools and offices for intense disinfection.
He knows he has to be careful.
“My family come into my mind – my wife, my son, my parents – but I mean, I do this as my job and I actually feel like, you know, it’s an opportunity to help out our schools,” Velarde said.
When he gets to a site and begins a cleaning job, he puts himself in the shoes of the people who will have to use the space next.
“My first thought is let’s take care of this, let’s do a really good job on this,” he said. “… We want to make sure we’re covering every single area, so, when anybody does go in there – whether it’s a parent, student, teacher, administrator – they’re going to be walking back into this room safely.”
While APS students will continue remote learning at least for the beginning of the second semester, some small groups for special education have been allowed at schools, and teachers are able to work from their classrooms.
John Dufay, executive director of maintenance and operations for APS, said the focus goes beyond clean classrooms. The district is also concerned about keeping people safe during the pandemic.
To do that, APS has a two-pronged strategy. The 985 custodians in the district do daily cleaning of high-touch surfaces – such as doorknobs, tabletops and light switches – using household disinfectants.
And if a case is confirmed at a school site by the state Department of Health, Velarde and the specialty crew come in.
APS officials meet daily to review cases. They discuss what areas in a school were affected and deploy the COVID-19 Response Team, which has undergone specific training, for a deep clean.
Interim chief operations officer Gabriella Blakey said APS’ prompt and effective cleaning response hinges on timely notification of a COVID-19 case. She said that in August, the response team could clean a school the day after the site was closed off, but the recent explosion of cases statewide means five days could pass before the district is notified.
When the team is sent out, they’re hard to miss. Dressed in the hooded suits with filtration systems, the crew is equipped with electrostatic foggers, which act like a massive can of Lysol to disinfect the area.
“We have special electrostatic foggers, which are systems that are set up to be able to do complete fogging of areas … because the electrostatic sends out a positive charge that goes and cleans everything,” said Dufay, adding that foggers do not clean the air.
After cleaning, staff can start using the cleaned area after a day or two, he said.
As of early December, the district had completed 115 COVID foggings since the summer.
APS already had experience with the technique.
Dufay said the district used foggings during the H1N1 outbreak and will use them if there are norovirus cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says norovirus is a “very contagious virus” that causes vomiting and diarrhea
APS owns more than a dozen foggers, some of which were purchased before the pandemic, according to Dufay. The district’s inventory includes large machines to disinfect big areas like a gymnasium and a larger number of handheld ones for classrooms and hallways.
Before COVID-19, the team Velarde leads mostly did specialized cleaning, such as sandblasting and graffiti removal. They sometimes used foggers as needed. Now, in addition to the other cleaning duties, their primary job is deep cleaning schools after a coronavirus case.
According to Blakey, as of early December, some custodians had contracted COVID-19, but none of the response team members had tested positive.
There are contractors on call if APS needs additional help, but the response crew, which consists of five members and a backup, is the main point of contact.
Dufay said deep cleaning while wearing all the gear is physically demanding. But fellow crew members make the job easier for Velarde. He appreciates knowing that someone is checking to make sure there are no holes in his suit and that his equipment is functioning. Even having someone to talk about football with when the constant reminders of COVID-19 gets too heavy is a help.
Velarde said the team recognizes the risks that come with the job, but the focus is on getting it done. That’s why he calls the team the “COVID killers.”
“Knowing these guys do have my back, and I have their back, that’s one great thing about it,” he said.