US Federal government needs to declare seafarers ‘essential workers’

Drive- through testing for essential workers. Credit: Getty Images

The US Federal government needs to declare seafarers as ‘essential workers’ in a congregate living setting so that they can be applicable for priority COVID-19 testing to avoid future disruptions to trade and guarantee crew safety.

In his address to the US House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Michael G. Roberts, senior vice president Crowley Maritime, put forward that due to continued misinterpretation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 guidelines on-signing seafarers are still encountering difficulties in getting access to COVID-19 tests.

The root of this misinterpretation appears to be due do the inability, on behalf of the US Federal government, to explicitly designate essential worker status to seafarers. “When we would ask for COVID-19 testing for our on-signing crew, the uniform response would be that such tests are only available for health care and emergency workers under CDC guidance,” Roberts told SAS.

On the websites of US health care and other test kit providers such as CVS and Walgreens appointment slots for priority testing are only available for health care and emergency workers. As such, Roberts explained how on-signing seafarers, for the most part must rely on self-isolation and 14-day quarantine periods before embarking on vessels.

Seafarers are designated as essential critical infrastructure workers, according to the guidance issued by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, however, herein lies the contradiction. “The government is telling seafarers to do their jobs in close living quarters despite the risks on the one hand, and on the other they are telling stakeholders through the interpretation of the CDC that they are not eligible for COVID-19 testing,” explained Roberts.

The CDC guidance, since mid-April, has specified that priority access for testing should be for “workers in congregate living settings” for which crews should apply, however, without explicit designation this misinterpretation will continue.

This situation is changing slowly, due to the growing availability of testing kits: Roberts cited a public testing facility in Jacksonville, Florida, which was open to anyone who needed a test. However, this is a localised example and as seafarers live throughout the US a nationwide solution needs to be found.

Roberts, on behalf of Crowley, has been directly appealing to health care providers and clinicians petitioning the case of seafarers as ‘essential workers’ to try and secure access to COVID-19 testing kits. He maintains that these providers, after the meetings, do agree that seafarers should be applicable for testing and secures test kits.

“We would encourage the federal government through the CDC and the US Coast Guard to just say five simple words, mariners qualify for priority testing,” concluded Roberts.