West Coast ports are often the first stops for ships sailing from China, Japan and other Asian countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Not surprisingly, many pilots are wary of encountering sick crew aboard these ships.
“The pilots are very concerned,” Capt. Eric vonBrandenfels, president of the Puget Sound Pilots, said in late February. “We are the first people on the ships, and some of them are coming from China where the virus originated. (The pilots) are concerned about the different threats the virus poses to their health.”
Pilots are accustomed to boarding foreign-flagged ships with one crewmember or another battling a minor cold or cough. But the outbreak that began earlier this year in central China and caused more than 15,000 deaths worldwide as of mid-March has raised the stakes. Pilots are rightly worried about getting sick.
VonBrandenfels, who spoke to Professional Mariner aboard a Crowley tugboat after guiding a bulk carrier out of Seattle’s Duwamish River, stressed the many unknowns about the virus. In late February, there was still tremendous uncertainty about how the virus spreads and how long it can survive on surfaces.
“(I had) to answer a concerned pilot’s questions about being on a ship with sick crew last night,” vonBrandenfels said, adding that there was a lot of paranoia among mariners. The sick crew “might have a common cold, but now who knows the difference?”
The Coast Guard has taken a series of steps to prevent mariners from spreading the virus. For instance, crew working aboard vessels arriving in the U.S. within 14 days from calling in China, Japan, Iran, Italy or South Korea are not permitted to leave the ships, according to Michael Clark, a Coast Guard spokesman in Seattle.
The service also has expanded the window for reporting sick crew on inbound foreign-flagged ships. The historical standard required ships to report any sick crew at least four days before arriving at a U.S. port. The new standard in place during the coronavirus outbreak requires ships to report any mariner who has been sick within the past 15 days.
“We are assessing all advanced notice of arrival reports from inbound vessels to determine if the vessel has visited a country impacted by COVID-19 within the last five ports of call,” Clark said. “Vessel representatives are required to report sick crew or passengers within the last 15 days to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”
Concern about contracting a virus of unknown or exotic origin goes both ways. VonBrandenfels recalled another recent piloting job bringing a foreign bulker out of the Duwamish River. The bridge crew all wore masks due to concern they might contract something from American longshoremen or pilots.
The masks made it nearly impossible to understand the crew, he said. They agreed to remove them at vonBrandenfels’ request, but he noticed they put them back on as soon as possible.