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Seafarers receive COVID vaccine while in Baltimore ports

Andrew Middleton, from right, director of the Apostleship of the Sea outreach for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins Medicine COVID vaccination team members Ben Bigelow and Erin Van Meter, take a last-minute request for a vaccination clinic June 14, 2021 for a ship moored at the Curtis Bay coal pier that would be casting off in a matter of hours. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

The mobile COVID vaccination team from Johns Hopkins Medicine brought sweet relief June 14 by way of the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine to international seafaring crews, which will protect their health and allow them to spend more time with families while in their home ports.

Some 30 vaccinations in all were administered to the crews of the Panamanian-flagged sugar transport Century Bright, moored at Domino Sugar off Key Highway, and the Malta-flagged coal transport Nana Z, moored at the Curtis Bay coal pier.

Andy Middleton, director of the Apostleship of the Sea outreach for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, coordinated the first of what he hopes is an ongoing effort to support international ship crew vaccinations against the coronavirus, including transportation to Maryland vaccination sites when onboard clinics are not available.

A crew member of the Malta-flagged Nana Z moored at the Curtis Bay coal pier carries the Johnson and Johnson vaccine temperature control box and supplies June 14, 2021 for the Johns Hopkins Medicine mobile vaccination team’s onboard clinic. Andrew Middleton, director of the Apostleship of the Sea outreach for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the Hopkins team responded to a last minute request for a clinic onboard the ship, which left just hours later for its next port. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of June 15, U.S. fatalities from COVID-19 have reached nearly 600,000, even though the daily death rate due to the virus has dropped drastically.

One of the greatest challenges in vaccinating seafarers is knowing when ships will be in port, even though the Baltimore Maritime Exchange provides a schedule. Ships can be delayed or rescheduled, creating a challenge for last-minute requests for vaccinations. But that is not a deterrent, according to Middleton.

“I got an email about vaccinations for seafarers,” Middelton said. “I asked myself why we couldn’t do that” for those who come on ships to the Port of Baltimore.

Middleton reached out to several providers, and Johns Hopkins Medicine responded in a similar fashion to earlier efforts by Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski at Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús to get his parishioners and the Highlandtown Latino community in Baltimore City tested and vaccinated. 

But it wasn’t smooth sailing right away, as Middleton was supposed to drop off the vaccination team traveling in his van close to the dock for easy loading and unloading. Unfortunately, the route was blocked by a large truck. 

It’s tight quarters in the crew mess for Johns Hopkins Medicine pharmacist Erin Van Meter, as she prepares the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine during an unscheduled stop June 14, 2021 to vaccinate the crew of coal transport ship, Nana Z, moored at the Curtis Bay coal pier. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Determined to complete its mission, the Hopkins crew unloaded and received an impromptu walking tour of the outer edge of the Domino Sugar plant with its smells and noise, while pushing a hand truck of computers and label printer, hand carrying the temperature-controlled vaccine cooler and plastic tub of supplies through a security gate and up a steep set of steel stairs to awaiting crew. These steps were not your typical house staircase.

While Century Bright was manned by a Filipino crew, the Nana Z had a combined crew from the Philippines and Ukraine.

“We are at sea for 10 months. I’ve been at sea 13 to 14 months at times,” said Engracio Luguinario Jr., captain of the Century Bright. “The crew must remain onboard – no liberty, no shore leave. The vaccine is very important for us.”

Luguinario said that during his most recent home shore leave he was required to stay in quarantine for two weeks, leaving just two weeks to spend with family before weighing anchor for the next run. 

“I’m back because I need my job,” he said. Having been vaccinated, he can spend more time with his family while on shore.

Andrew Middleton, second from right, director of the Apostleship of the Sea outreach for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and members of the Johns Hopkins Medicine mobile COVID vaccination team, disembark from the Malta-flagged coal transport ship Nana Z June 14, 2021 at the Curtis Bay coal pier. The team vaccinated its crew with the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine hours before the ship sailed to its next port of call, South Africa. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Ryan Buluran, part of the Century Bright crew, put an emphasis on how easy the pandemic can spread globally. “We travel around the world taking cargo from one port to another,” said Buluran in his heavily Filipino accent. “We don’t know if the person coming on board has the virus or not. We are so happy to get the vaccine right here in Baltimore.”

Crews on both ships were like children on Christmas day looking for presents under the tree, as they peeked inside the door of their respective mess quarters curious and were excited about the opportunity to be vaccinated against the global pandemic.

Middleton said it was amusing to watch and was “encouraging to see the seafarers’ response.” It affirmed it was the right thing to do.

Shortly after the team stepped back on shore following the Century Bright vaccination, Middleton received a call asking if vaccines were available for another ship, the Nana Z, leaving port in a matter of hours. The ship is headed for Port Elizabeth, South Africa, due to arrive July 9, according to vesselfinder.com.

Mary Carole Fortunato, a Cathedral of Mary Our Queen parishioner and nurse with the Johns Hopkins Medicine mobile vaccination team, explains the COVID vaccination card to a crew member of the Panamanian sugar transport, Century Bright, during an onboard clinic. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Ben Bigelow, the Hopkins team leader who also aided in coordinating the Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús clinic, confirmed availability. Middleton set course for the Curtis Bay coal pier. 

After a nearly 60-minute delay clearing security channels, the team boarded the Nana Z to accomplish the mission of vaccinating those on board.

The quarters in which the Hopkins team worked were anything but luxurious, as both clinics were held in the crew mess, one being smaller than the next. The crew’s excitement, however, was no less diminished. 

The Johns Hopkins Medicine team members were treated like rock stars, as the ships’ crews not only photographed each other being administered the vaccine and showing their vaccination card or arm bandage, but also with the vaccination team as well.

Some of the Nana Z crew also made it a point to carry the team’s supplies up and down the stairs.

Andrew Middleton, right, director of the Apostleship of the Sea outreach for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, escorts the Johns Hopkins Medicine COVID vaccination team towards the Panamanian sugar transport ship, Century Bright, docked at the Domino Sugar plant on Key Highway in Baltimore June 14, 2021. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“This was very amazing and extremely humbling and rewarding,” said Mary Carole Fortunato, a nurse with John Hopkins Medicine vaccination team and a parishioner of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland. “We need to end this pandemic. If we only get 20 or 40 vaccinated, it’s more than we had vaccinated this morning.”

Those involved agreed this first offering of vaccinations onboard ship was successful and they learned a few things for future visits as well.

“These are vulnerable people,” said Middleton of the unique profession of a seafarer and the mental stress they have been under during the past 18 months of the pandemic. “We’re making their (overall) health a priority while here in Baltimore, at home and at sea.”

Email Kevin Parks at kparks@CatholicReview.org

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