Some of the sailors, who for the most part have not been able to leave their ships since the outbreak of the pandemic, have spent as much as 20 months at sea, without being able to set foot on dry land anywhere in the world.
The sailors who are responsible for transporting 90 percent of the consumer goods of the entire globe have for all intents and purposes been stranded at sea without recourse to taking any breaks in ports since they were not able to be inoculated.
The International Maritime Organization, a group which represents merchant mariners all over the world, has described the situation as an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”
Allowed only to offload and take on cargo, they have been nevertheless quarantined aboard their vessels for the duration of the pandemic. That is, until a new campaign launched by a Maine nurse was undertaken last week, which may change this difficult and unprecedented situation.
The enterprising nurse in Maine has taken action against this humanitarian crisis by creating a program involving vaccinating foreign sailors, enabling them to finally feel a little more safe and secure. They also hope this means that, eventually, they will indeed be able to set foot on land at the ports they visit, according to local rules and regulations.
Annie Dundon, a nurse who once was a student at the Maine Merchant Marine Academy in Castine, and who lives on nearly Mount Desert Island, took the situation by the horns, instituting a program by which these sailors can finally receive the precious vaccine shots that some Mainers continue to refuse.
Although Maine has had a stellar vaccine rollout, with more than 70% of its citizens having received at least a first dose, some lingering vaccine hesitancy meant that the state has had a surplus of vaccine on its hands.
Dundon would have none of this while sailors in ships all along Maine’s coast had been kept aboard their ships for months — and now more than a year — at a time.
So far, Dundon and her husband and partner in the initiative, Captain Skip Strong, have inoculated a total of 65 sailors from nations including Russia, the Philippines and Thailand, among others.
Strong, who is a Penobscot Bay harbor pilot, was aware of the plight of the seamen and knew something had to be done, since even after the men eventually return to their homes, vaccines might not be available to them for months.
“It’s been tough on them,” Strong said this past week in an interview with the Bangor Daily News.
“Stop and think about living on a 400 to 1,000-foot-long steel box with roughly 20 other guys, and that’s it. That’s your world. We want to do as much as we can for them.”
The program was made possible because the state of Maine withdrew its requirement of residency for all those who wished to be vaccinated. Strong thought this was the perfect opportunity to help these sailors — some of whom come from countries with very limited supplies of the vaccine — to become fully vaccinated.
“We are so fortunate here in this country, and most people just don’t understand that,” Strong stated. His first move was to inquire whether or not there would be a way to bring a mobile vaccination unit to the port of Searsport, which serves many tankers from all over the world.
Told that that was not going to happen, despite the fact that such vans have been used all over the state of Maine and in other states, Strong refused to take no for an answer. He then turned to his wife, who has worked as a nurse in nearby Southwest Harbor for 20 years. Before that time, however, she herself had worked on tankers as part of the state’s long tradition of seafaring.
This turned out to be a perfect combination of factors as well, which ended up benefitting the many sailors who call at Maine ports.
“You’re just stuck out there for months on end,” Dundon explains.”For a lot of the foreign crews, they have an eight or nine month contract. They have children they’ve never seen. It’s heartbreaking. What ever we can do to make life easier…
“These crews are from places where it might be a year or more before they have the opportunity (to become vaccinated).”
Dundon reached out to her employer, Mount Desert Island Hospital, to help in this unprecedented situation. Officials there decided they could easily spare some of the precious vaccine to help the unfortunate sailors, donating 70 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the nascent program.
The hospital’s pharmacy workers even made sure that all of the voluminous informational handouts regarding the vaccine were provided to the sailors in their native languages.
“The hospital has been great,” Dundon told the News, “And the crew at the pharmacy has been fabulous.”
Last week, there were multiple vessels calling at the harbor of Searsport, making the situation especially fortuitous, enabling Dundon to inoculate 65 sailors from different vessels at once. Merchant mariners on ships bringing wind turbine sails and petroleum coke and slag suddenly found themselves with the opportunity to become fully vaccinated while their ships laid at berth.
Capt. Strong was in charge of all the voluminous paperwork needed for the program while Dundas administered the shots to the happy mariners. Dundon explained “It happened really quick once we got the ball rolling.”
Although not all the sailors wanted to receive the vaccine, the majority were more than happy to line up and bare their arms for the opportunity.
“They’re so happy, just so excited. It really could make the difference for them, when they go home and they feel like they’re not bringing something home to their families. And maybe in some ports, they’ll be able to go ashore.”
The vaccination campaign has been completely a volunteer effort for the couple, who devoted 24 hours of their time last week to the mariners’ inoculation program.
She admits to interviewers that she was a bit tired after all the extra work, on top of her normal shift at the hospital. But it was well worth it, she maintains.
“Covid has been a really hard year for everyone,” she states. “While it’s a lot of work on top of my regular job, it just feels really good.
“It lightened my load. We’re making a difference, and it feels good.”