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How America's COVID-19 Response Began With Seafarer Health Care

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By The Maritime Executive 03-17-2020 10:25:00

The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service may not be a household name, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is about to get much more attention. The Trump administration announced Sunday that PHS officers will deploy nationwide to help out with coronavirus testing efforts. 

The PHS Corps is a uniformed service, much like the NOAA Corps and the U.S. armed forces, and it has a maritime background. It began in 1798 with the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, a law that required all vessels on international and coasting trades to pay a tax to fund seafarers' medical needs - the first medical insurance program in the United States. In the Age of Sail, seafarers faced a serious risk of illness and injury, and the Act led to the creation of a hospital system to care for them.

Over the course of the 19th century, that system expanded to include marine hospitals in Norfolk, Boston, Newport, New Orleans and Charleston, and in 1870 it was centralized as the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (MHS). In 1878, the Marine Health Service took on responsibility for a task that sounds familiar: the newly-formed agency was assigned to control repeated, deadly epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever in the civilian population, an area outside of its normal remit for seafarer health. The service conducted quarantine and vaccination programs, including inspections at immigration ports of entry. Congress eventually recognized this expanded role by establishing the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps as a division of the MHS. 

In 1912, the Marine Hospital Service was renamed the Public Health Service (PHS), the name it retains today. PHS is now the parent agency for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the PHS Corps - the backbone of America's response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Its operational head is the Surgeon General of the United States.

Americans may not know of the maritime history behind their government's response to COVID-19, but a quick glance at the agency's seal gives it away: PHS pays homage to its roots by displaying the caduceus - the common symbol of the medical profession - alongside a 19th-century Rodgers anchor. This historical reminder can be spotted on PHS officers' uniform lapels as they ramp up the COVID-19 response across America.