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Forensic Science Professor Reflects on Service on the Front Lines of New York City’s Response to Coronavirus Pandemic
Peter Valentin ’08 M.S. was among the dozens of federal professionals deployed to help New York City officials respond to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
June 17, 2020
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
The night he taught his final class of the spring semester, Peter Valentin ’08 M.S. left for New York City, where he spent two weeks serving on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prof. Valentin was deployed as part of a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), a team he has been a part of for nearly 20 years. Focused on the recovery, decontamination, examination, and return of human remains in disasters, the team helped the city process those who died as a result of COVID-19.
Prof. Valentin is not at liberty to discuss many of the details of his particular mission, but he was one of dozens of federal workers who helped the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City respond to the pandemic.
“I was not nervous to be in New York because as a hazmat technician, I know how to work safely in hazardous environments,” explains Prof. Valentin, a forensic science lecturer at the University. “We had all the PPE we needed.”
Team members set up a complete disaster morgue in Brooklyn within days and ran the facilities. Morgue operations have now been turned back over to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Those who were deployed were expected to begin their assignment within a day or two of being notified, and most deployments lasted for two or three weeks, though they could be extended. Team members could also be asked to return.
Prof. Valentin, who was deployed for two weeks, traveled around the city as the DMORT liaison on the team that recovered COVID-19 victims from hospitals in all five boroughs. He has served in a similar role in the past – but not in response to a pandemic. He was previously deployed to Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Prof. Valentin’s team was also deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Because he was in the Connecticut State Police Academy at the time, he was not part of DMORT’s response to the 9/11 terror attacks, but he says returning to his hometown of New York City made this deployment even more impactful.
“It is an unusual and almost unknown application of forensic science as we tried to make identifications during a pandemic,” he said. “It was critical for us to step in when the situation overwhelmed the local resources.”
Team members worked closely with the U.S. Army and New York National Guard as they assisted in the response to the crisis. Working in 12-hour shifts seven days a week, they made sure the bodies of the thousands of COVID-19 victims were handled safely and with dignity. Because of the severity of the pandemic, responders were challenged with handling, at times, hundreds of bodies each day.
“It was important for me to step in and perform the role I was trained for,” said Prof. Valentin. “The number of people who died in New York City was more than was recorded in any other state. I was honored to work with professionals from across local, state, and federal agencies to perform this important, but often unrecognized, work.”