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Harbor Pilots' Exposure to COVID Requires Priority for Vaccinations

pilots need priority to COVID-19 vaccination
Pilots who have first contact with ships must work in PPE (Maritime Pilots Malaysia)

Published May 28, 2021 7:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

Access to COVID-19 vaccines has been a widely discussed issue across the maritime industry. The latest group to be calling for priority for its members is the Maritime Pilots Malaysia, which represents the country’s pilots who serve the harbor and offshore operations. 

The association said that it is “disappointed and deeply worried,” that the maritime pilots were not given the priority for COVID-19 vaccinations by the government.  They contend the pilots were denied priority although an application and lists of names were submitted months earlier to the country’s immunization task force. With Malaysia recently experiencing a surge in the number of cases, which prompted the government to renew restrictions, the group highlights that the pilots continue to be exposed to a higher level of risk while piloting foreign ships into and out the harbors of Malaysia.

Captain Martin Lim, president and chairman of Maritime Pilots Malaysia speaking about the need for the pilots to be given access to the vaccinations, said “It is indeed very critical and urgent as we continue to face more challenges each passing days responding to ships with crew members infected with COVID-19 onboard.” 

 

Pilots are required to wear PPE but not fully protected (MPM)

 

MPM highlights that maritime pilots are the first person to board a foreign ship when it arrives at a port with ships generally not being required to anchor outside the port for inspection or quarantine even though the ships may be arriving from India and other countries that have seen strong increases and new variations of the virus. Captain Lim highlights that vessels are not quarantined until after the pilots guide them into the harbor or bring them alongside at the berth.

“This unwarranted practice imposed severe health and safety risks to the maritime pilots and is certainly emotionally distressing,” says Lim. He pointed out that the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is required by the port authorities, but it is not a guarantee that the pilots will be safe from exposure to the infection. He also said that some new strains of COVID-19 cannot be detected with widely used means such as swap tests or body temperature. 

“I urge the Malaysia government to take swift action with the highest urgency through a special arrangement to vaccinate all maritime pilots who are serving at all ports in Malaysia,” said Lim. “As maritime pilots are the first person to board any foreign ships, the vaccination will protect them and offer a sense of health security. If any serious infection involving maritime pilots at any port in the country occurs, the movement of ships into the ports and harbor can be seriously jeopardized and eventually affect the shipping of cargoes in and out of the country.”

The MPM said that three pilots have tested positive for COVID-19, but all recovered fully from the virus. They also reported that more than a dozen other pilots were placed into quarantine for up to 14 days due to close contact with crew members who were later declared as a “person under investigation.”

Shipping organizations around the world have been calling for vaccine priorities for seafarers to ensure the flow of goods. In the spring, vaccines became an issue at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles when the unions blamed some delays and congestion at the ports on dockworkers and cargo handlers getting sick or being quarantined. Dockworkers in Argentina have staged strikes the past two weeks demanding that they be prioritized for vaccinations.