“We were shocked,” said Daniel Voznyarskiy, a 22-year-old student at the University of Washington who returned to the United States last week after an involuntary two-week quarantine in southern Peru. “We had no warning whatsoever. They made us do a 360, sprayed us with bleach and sprayed our bags. I closed my eyes and plugged my nose.”
The Peruvian government did not respond to a request for comment.
The use of bleach to disinfect suspected carriers of the rapidly spreading virus has prompted outrage in other parts of the world. In India, where authorities recently sprayed scores of migrants in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh with bleach, officials halted the practice and vowed to discipline those who carried it out.
The World Health Organization has warned that spraying people with chlorine and other powerful disinfectants can harm their eyes and mouths and “will not kill viruses that have already entered” the body. Bleach and alcohol can be an effective disinfectant on hard surfaces.
A State Department spokesperson said that “we have been in touch with local authorities in Cusco on this incident and will continue discussions with our Peruvian counterparts to ensure that health care practices comply with international standards.”
The department has been under pressure to return tens of thousands of Americans to the United States who, like Voznyarskiy, were stranded when foreign governments closed borders and canceled flights in response to the growing novel coronavirus pandemic.
The department faced early criticism on its response time and coordination with embassies but has received praise in recent days for streamlining the evacuation process. As of Tuesday, the department had repatriated more than 45,000 citizens from 75 countries on more than 460 flights.
The chemical dousing marked a low point for Voznyarskiy and dozens of other tourists who were quarantined at the Pariwana hostel in Cusco for two weeks after the government identified two hostel guests as carriers of the novel coronavirus and prevented anyone from leaving.
Instead of removing the guests who tested positive for the virus, local authorities ordered a mandatory quarantine of at least 28 days for all of the guests, telling some they may have to stay several months.
The more than 120 hostel guests, including several Americans, struggled to practice social distancing in cramped quarters with bunk beds. Many of the guests kept in communication through a group messaging service, which lit up on the night of March 29 when guests began alerting one another that they were being lined up outside and sprayed with a mystery chemical.
“We were all pretty scared in the group chat,” said Patrick Beach, a 27-year-old Orlando resident who traveled to Cusco on vacation with his girlfriend. “You hear chlorine or bleach, and you know you’re not supposed to touch it. So the idea of being sprayed with it is very scary.”
The Americans trapped in the hostel enlisted their representatives in Congress for help, drawing in concerned lawmakers in states including New Jersey, Washington and Florida.
“This alarming situation required urgent attention, and I repeatedly brought it to the attention of the highest levels of the U.S. and Peruvian governments,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), whose constituent, Kacie Brandenburg, was quarantined at the hostel.
Hostel guests complained of confusing and insufficient information from the Peruvian government and meager food offerings in the hostel during their quarantine. Being whisked out of their rooms with no warning about a chemical treatment exacerbated the situation.
“Ultimately it just ruined peoples’ clothes and everyone was pretty much okay, but the surprise of it all was the worst thing,” Beach said.
The Americans were told by authorities that they could be shot on sight if they left the hostel, even if they had documentation showing they had a repatriation flight arranged by the U.S. government, Beach said.
Eventually, the Peruvian government, which had suspended international flights last month with 24 hours’ notice, approved chartered flights by the U.S. government and allowed the Americans to leave the hostel.
“I went to Peru to see Machu Picchu,” Voznyarskiy said. “I didn’t expect to be bleached.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.