100 Cops Taken Off Duty By COVID

Tonight, COVID is spreading across Belize - and it's spreading security forces thin. Between the BDF and Police, 250 law enforcement personnel are at home - either in self isolation after a positive test, or in quarantine because they were exposed.

For the police, 100 cops are at home because of COVID - 60 have tested positive for the virus, while another 40 are in quarantine because of possible exposure.

Today, via Zoom video conference, the Commissioner of police told us that he's been forced to re-deploy manpower to keep domestic security at an optimal level - and it's not been easy:

Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police

"It is really sad for us that we currently have a number of 61 police officers who are infected with the COVID-19 virus. Since the start of COVID-19 we have had 88 infected officers, some of whom have recovered, and we have 61 active cases. Those active cases are currently in isolation and we also have about 40 or so police officers who have are in quarantine, pending results. So the COVID-19 pandemic has truly hit us hard, police officers on a daily basis, we have to interact with people, we conduct house searches, we conduct people searches, we have to arrest people and those are activities that brings us in direct contact with individuals, many of whom we do not know what their status are, so it really and truly puts us at risk and even though yes, we try our utmost best to ensure that officers wear their PPE, at times the PPE does not serve the purpose the way we would expect it to. Just over the past 2 weeks, we had to change our personnel from along the Santa Cruz, San Victor Douglas area, those are involved in the contraband hotspots because many of them were infected with the virus as well."

Jules Vasquez

"Should rapid testing be made available for frontline workers, especially those who have to be in constant contact with new members of the public on daily basis?"

Chester Williams

"I did get that suggestion this morning from a good friend who suggested to me that we should being to do our own rapid testing as police and it is something that I'm going to discuss with my minister to see what support we can get for that. I do believe that yes, if we can do that it would help significantly because the truth is, we come into contact with a lot of people and to arrest somebody requires physical contact with that individual."

Jules Vasquez

"How has the quarantining and the self-isolation and the diagnosis of so many officers, so many dozen of officers affected your ability to deploy and police effectively when your juggling man power from hotspot to the other?"

Chester Williams

"I think Jules I need to go into the world chess competition, and I might win that competition, it's like juggling and playing chess. It is difficult at times because separate and a part from the fact that we have about 100 or so officers out of commission, we also since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have also lost at least about another 100 officers due to attrition, either resignation, dismissal, person retiring, going off medically, deaths, etc, so we have also loss over 100 due to attrition since the COVID-19 pandemic. So, you can see where our numbers is depleting but despite that, we continue to remain effective and efficient as we can."

Fortunately, No police officers are currently hospitalised for COVID symptoms.

Keeping Cops Motivated

And with 100 cops dealing with COVID up close, and thousands more still on duty and very afraid to get infected, how is the police department managing to stay motivated and engaged with a community that is increasingly infected?

That's what we asked the Commissioner:

Jules Vasquez

"This is right now is the hardest time for policing in memory because of the duration, we're going into the 8th month of COVID awareness, my perception is that some of the officers are inevitably losing motivation and this may be for a number of reasons, they are very afraid to get infected and that is a completely rational fear. Two, there is only so much you can do, I saw people campaigning this morning for politics with their mask under their chin. How hard is to keep officers motivated and focus on enforcing really what is a public health issue more than a law and order issue strictly?"

Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police

"The truth is Mr. Vasquez that indeed many of our officers are affected psychologically because just the thought of some of them getting infected do affects them and sometimes it's not for them per say but the fact that they might be infected and go home to families unknowing to them that they are infected, then they infect their loved ones, that makes it even worse. I am here, I can tell you I don't really want to interact with my mother because I don't know if I'm infected and I don't want to infect her, so I try as best as I can to interact with her, which is extremely hard for both of us. At the end of the day, as I've said before as police officers, we are a special breed of people and the things that we do in difficult circumstances are difficult times are you rightly alluded to are things that some people would never dream to do for not even an hour but despite that, majority of officers are still committed every day to come to work and do what they need to do to ensure the safety of others. The campaign issue, I saw a group yesterday indeed and they were campaigning, they were in very close proximity of one another, they were not wearing their mask properly and I stopped beside them and I said come on, you need to social distance and you need to ensure that you wear your mask and they apologised and they put on their mask and being to walk with spaces in between but I am sure that when they got up the road again, they continue to do what they want, these are the things that people need to understand. The police and the Ministry of Health do not have the power to stop the spread, who have the power, are each of us individually to ensure that we make it our individual interest to do what we need to do to protect ourselves and to protect our loved ones."

BDF Thinned Out By COVID Infections

And, it's not just our police force but also our defence forces that have been thinned out by COVID-19.

There are 142 soldiers either in quarantine or in self-isolation; 65 of those are positive cases, while 39 are from the military installation in Orange Walk

Via Zoom video conference, we got a zoom update on the situation from Lt. Col Brandon Garcia, who told Cherisse Halsall that COVID-19 will not stop the BDF from manning the north.

Lt. Col Brandon Garcia - Chief of Staff of the BDF

"When those persons on operation actually were allowed some down time, they went home and one of them in particular came back, because he was with some infected persons in his family."

Cherisse Halsall

"So, we know that that index case happened about 2 weeks ago, by all measures would you label that soldier a super spreader?"

Lt. Col Brandon Garcia

"Well, it started yes with him and to this date we have confirmed that within the BDF we have a total of 65 positive cases, 39 with 39 alone being from the military installation in Orange Walk also a total of 142 persons, or 142 soldiers are quarantined or on self-isolation at home."

Cherisse Halsall

"What can you tell me about contact process that has been going on, how has it identified all those that you know about and how much can you tell us about who else may have been exposed?"

Lt. Col Brandon Garcia

"The contact tracing is being done with the assistance from the Ministry of Health and our doctors are also involved in this process."

Cherisse Halsall

"With this large incapacitation of soldiers, what does this mean for the BDF? How are you able to operate with all of these people out of commission?"

Lt. Col Brandon Garcia

"So, while I cannot speak to the plans we have in place, I will say there are no issues fulfilling our commitment. Basically, we are saying that we as a force for us to minimize the transmission of this virus, it requires employing the necessary precautions, it requires access to rapid testing kits, it requires an understanding of the problem within itself. It requires an implementation of doing things differently and also the most important, it requires continuous leadership. All these requirements work in tandem with knowing one status throughout this pandemic. So that is our approach to all that is happening within the BDF, so that we in return can protect the citizens of this country."

A relief is currently being conducted along the border to replace all those soldiers currently out of commission due to COVID.

COVID Breaks Into The Prison

And, it's not only police and health workers - but - as we told you last week - prison guards have also been infected.

For months now there have been rumblings of a COVID outbreak at the Belize Central Prison.

And, it seemed an inevitability - with a large number of men and women confined to cramped spaces. Still, the prison had been doing a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay. However. with the increasingly wide footprint of COVID-19, there was only so long they could remain an island isolated against infection.

This morning Cherisse Halsall headed to Hattieville to find out about the outbreak at the Belize Central Prison.

The Belize Central Prison, it's a fortress, a place from which thoughts of escape are mostly futile. But while Prisoners don't seem to get out, Covid-19 has managed to get in.

This morning we went behind prison walls to ask the Kolbe Foundation's C.E.O. about the prison's first brush with COVID 19, a small outbreak that's left 6 prison guards and 8 inmates infected with the virus.

Virgilio Murillo - C.E.O, Kolbe Foundation

"We did a hundred and 52 rapid tests, that was done amongst guards and inmates, and of that 152 rapid tests, 8 inmates only turned out as positive for COVID 19. That included one female inmate and 7 male inmates. We also did some PCR tests aside from the 30 that we had done initially. That 30 like I said yielded 4 and then we did 21 on Tuesday or Monday that is and that resulted in two more guards testing positive for COVID-19. We have done some more PCR tests a total of 54 which we have not received any results yet for, so we are still waiting for the results for those. But out of that 54, 45 was done on inmates and the remaining was done on guards."

The question now is, how much contact did those positive cases have with the rest of the prison population?

Virgilio Murillo

"We've quarantined everybody who needs to be quarantined and we're hoping that that is how it stays now the quarantining should take care of them and 14 days later they will go back and do a subsequent list that should clear them up. Whoever isn't cleared up by then. I imagine you'd have to push on with another 14 days quarantine. What we have done right now to those ones that are under quarantine they are being attended to by guards and obviously the guards are properly dressed in their PPE including a face shield and the Hazmat suit and what have you, gloves and everything are properly sanitized and sterilized on a regular basis."

Cherisse Halsall

"With the knowledge that there is, as I said, a small outbreak in the prison, what's the mood like here among inmates that may not yet be affected, infected. How are they feeling about the fact that the virus is nowhere among your population?"

Virgilio Murillo

"Well, like I've always maintained as long as you educate the prison population and the staff and you don't hide any information from them, your open with the information, you shouldn't be getting any resistance or rebellion if you want to call it that and that is what we have done all along we have been keeping them in the loop. What I want to mention here is that with the widespread of COVID-19 in the community it would be wishful thinking for anybody to think that it would not eventually reach the prison. In my mind it has always been just a matter of when. Right now the prisoners are still entitled to maintain telephone contact with their families, visits are still suspended and they will remain so, suspended until we start to see some kind of improvement in the broader community. It would be very risky to open up for visits, especially bearing in mind what is happening on the outside."

And while every precaution is being taken to mitigate the spread, personnel at the prison are almost operating blindly. Murillo says he is waiting patiently for the results of additional testing that will give a better idea of how many people might have contracted the highly contagious disease.

Virgilio Murillo

"I know that they are very overwhelmed with the amounts of testing that they're doing in the broader community, these tests like I said were done like two days ago and I was hoping that we would have gotten the last set yesterday and then probably the set they did yesterday, maybe tomorrow but it doesn't happen that way obviously. So we're just waiting and we'll see what happens with that, I am hopeful that maybe by the end of today we should get the results for those though and then I would be in a better position to say what are the results of those."

COVID Taking A Toll On Frontline Workers

Yesterday on Ask The Experts, Director of Health Services Dr. Marvin Manzanero discussed the outbreak in these frontline security and health personnel.

Dr. Marvin Manzanero - Director of Health Services

"The issue with the group of BDF soldiers who have been stationed in Orange Walk. Some of the numbers that you saw there, it's at least 27 from that group that was stationed in Orange Walk turned positive, from that BD group, just so that you're aware. The majority of them are being quarantined now - I am told - in Belmopan. But, up to about 60 of those had actually been swabbed, but 27 of them have been confirmed to be positive, and they are being isolated elsewhere. We have also 14 police officers who are currently listed as active cases of sars COVID-2, and I'm not so sure if that entails or include the 3 new officers from a specific group in the Cayo District that turned out positive this morning. That's exposure [of] frontline workers, and we also have 4 healthcare workers that are currently having an active case of Sars COVID-2."

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