Since the start of the pandemic, seafarers have been in the frontline, maneuvering the threat of being infected, the constantly changing restrictions in ports, the crew change crisis, and the responsibility of keeping up the global supply chain. Numerous industry calls to define seafarers as key workers and prioritize vaccinations have so far had some, but still limited, effects.
In Houston, Tona Trondsen, Founder & CEO of Workplace Safety Screenings, is wrapping up the final tasks before leaving for her summer holiday. Since starting up in May, the vaccination scheme her company runs has settled in hectic but effective logistics. Every day, her trained nurses visit around ten ships in Houston, Galveston, Freeport, and Texas city. If timing is on their side, they can reach up to 19 ships in one day. To date, her team has vaccinated near 7000 seafarers.
The vaccination outreach came out of a very collaborative Houston maritime community. Workplace Safety Screenings is one of several Texas suppliers who participate in Port of Houston's vaccination initiative.
Rock star nurses
Naturally, the vaccine program is bound by a vast number of policies and precaution measures to secure that each jab is set in the safest way.
"It's a meticulous and labor-intensive procedure, from picking up the supplies in the morning and making sure we have all the equipment ready, to planning the transportation on the ground and at sea to get on board. All the while making sure that the vaccines keep their needed freezing temperature. One of my colleagues has postponed her retirement to help out. She's often volunteered to travel to the ships in the pitch-dark night to make sure they get their vaccination in time for departure. These nurses are real rock stars, going through the craziest situations to get on board in time".
Tona Trondsen, Founder & CEO, Workplace Safety Screenings
The logistics are planned by her team in the US and Philippines, in close cooperation with agents, port and health authorities, shipowners and the Captains. When onboard, the crew – ranging from ten to 24 persons per ship – gathers to be vaccinated by the one-shot Janssen. Every one is closely monitored for at least 30 minutes after the jab to make sure there are no side effects.
"To date, we have seen extremely few negative reactions to the vaccine, in any way. On the contrary, we feel immensely welcomed on all the ships we visit. It is a very rewarding job to meet people from all over the world, and all these kind Captains who truly care about their crew's welfare".
Socially rewarding, that is – the vaccinations are far from a moneymaker for the 2012-founded company. They are not charging for the vaccines, and the costs go mostly to cover certificates, transportation and equipment.
As the daughter of a Norwegian Captain, Tona spent the first years of her life at sea before the family settled in Houston. Her family history created a special bond to the seafarer life that she brings with her in her professional life.
"We are not doing this to make money, but because it needs to happen. For us, it's a labor of love, and we will continue until they tell us there are no more people to vaccinate".
A most welcomed jab
The Port of Houston is one of the busiest harbors in the world and the most visited for Odfjell ships, with more than 200 calls per year. When Covid-19 hit, the port was effectively closed for shore visits from seafarers, travel bans and quarantines hindered crew changes, and strict virus precaution measures affected all parts of the operations. Still, the port managed to keep up activity and vital supply chains thanks to diligent cooperation between ships and shore.
Houston was the first port to open for vaccination of international seafarers as the vaccine program rolled out in the US, followed by New Orleans. Several service providers contribute to secure speed and quality, among them Trondsen's company. The overall administration is led by the Houston International Seafarer Center and their Executive Director Dana Blume, who Trondsen describes as "instrumental in directing the vaccine efforts in Houston."
Odfjell was one of the first shipowners to jump on the opportunity. With an uncertain vaccination timeline, especially in the Philippines, and knowing so well the risks seafarers meet, the offer was more than welcomed. The initiative for Odfjell to take part came from Denise Schaefer, Manager Documentation and Regulatory Compliance at Odfjell US.
“The mission to help the seafarers from teams ashore is invaluable. We are so grateful to all the Seafarer Centers, Tona and her team, and the several others like them coming to the aid of our seafarers during the pandemic. They are truly making a difference".
Manager Documentation and Regulatory Compliance, Odfjell US
"In one case, we had crew vaccinated on two different dates while in Houston. An on-signing crew member had opted not to take the vaccine during the second vaccination day, but later regretted his decision and very much wanted the shot. This was complicated by the fact he could not go ashore to receive, as he had no customs status, and we were afraid a vendor would not come on board the vessel for one crew member. To the rescue, the Point Comfort Seafarer's Center, who came dockside and administered his vaccination quickly and efficiently.”
When receiving Denise's proposal at the headquarters in Bergen, Odfjell's Ship Management team moved fast:
"We did a thorough but time-efficient risk assessment, and quickly concluded that this project had a quality and safety level we could approve. Our people's safety is our top priority, and to offer our seafarers vaccinations when calling Houston takes us a solid step in the right direction. Taking the vaccine is of course completely voluntary, but we appreciate that we, as a global shipping company, can provide our people with the opportunity and choice. We are very happy to receive the positive response from our seafarers and note that we have already reached more than 350 of our crew with this one vaccination initiative".
VP Maritime Personnel, Svend Foyn-Bruun
Growing opportunities for seafarer vaccinations
Well into the second pandemic year and with a long line of mutant setbacks, the vaccination rate is growing steadily. More countries and international harbors are now following US’s lead and plan to open for in-port vaccinations, among them Germany, France and Poland. In the US, Mobile, AL, New Orleans and Lake Charles, LA, Beumont, Corpus Christi, Point Comfort, Texas City, Freeport and Charleston are on the growing list of cities that offer the jab.
"The vaccination program in Houston is fantastic, but a lost opportunity for our ships that do not call the US Gulf. Therefore, it is important for us to find vaccination hubs on other continents. This has been an unsuccessful quest until now. Still, we finally see some positive signs and hope we can soon give all our seafarers equal opportunities, regardless of location".
Trondsen has received multiple requests to cover other states in the US, but the logistics and licenses needed are so far putting a stop to an expansion. The ships have to be in the vicinity of about one hour due to the vaccine's lifetime and cooling requirements, and the nurses need special licenses to work in other states. So per today, the geographics are ships calling Texas.
And if the Trondsen team appreciates the way they are met on board, the experience is undoubtedly mutual, as Captain Binoy K. Chacko on Bow Precision commented after his team was vaccinated: "Starting off as an attempt to ensure the safety of my crew, I was unaware of the overwhelming support that was to come our way."