As cruise ships drawdown the number of passengers remaining on board, concern is growing for the tens of thousands of crew members, mostly foreign nationals, who remain stuck on board these ships in or near U.S. territorial waters.
The U.S. Coast Guard on Sunday revealed staggering new figures about the number of passengers disembarked from cruise ships in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic started to wreak havoc on the industry.
Over the last three weeks, the Coast Guard says it has processed more than 120 vessels, collectively disembarking 250,000 passengers onto U.S. soil, including the 1,200 or so passengers offloaded from MS Zaandam and MS Rotterdam in Port Everglades, Florida last week.
The removal of passengers from these vessel comes after the international cruise ship industry announced an initial 30-day suspension on sailings, with many of the major cruise lines now extending the suspension through at least the end of April.
Although the drawdown of passengers stuck on board cruise ships is viewed as a major milestone in one of the areas hardest hit by the virus (i.e., cruise ships), what remains alarming now is the number of crew members who still remain stuck on board these ships.
According to the Coast Guard, as of Sunday there were 114 cruise ships still carrying 93,000 crew members either in or near U.S. ports and waters. This includes 73 cruise ships with a combined 53,000 crew members either moored or anchored in U.S. ports and another 41 ships with 41,000 crew members still underway in the vicinity of the United States.
Ultimately, however, it is the obligation of the cruise lines for the care, safety and welfare of their seafarers, the Coast Guard says.
“The entire DHS team is working together to ensure no seafarer will be left untreated during this emergency to the best of our collective ability, however, proactive measures are critical to ensuring our limited search and rescue resources and already stressed shore-side medical services do not get over-burdened,” said Rear Adm. Eric Jones, commander of the Coast Guard’s 7th District. “This emergency situation requires cruise ships to take additional measures to be reasonably self-sufficient in these emergency circumstances through improved on board medical care and protocols and pre-approved medical transport procedures.”
On Monday, the Coast Guard announced it had carried out medical evacuations of three cruise ships crew members with COVID-19-like symptoms within the Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida areas of responsibility Saturday and Sunday.
In a Marine Safety Information Bulletin issued last week, Rear Adm. Jones said foreign-flagged cruise ships should prepare to treat COVID-19 patients at sea for “an indefinite period of time” as shore-side medical facilities and resources become overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
Although the MSIB stated that MEDEVACs would still be considered if deemed necessary by a Coast Guard surgeon, the vessel owner or operator are required to secure commercial transportation ashore and confirm hospital availability before any such evacuation is authorized.
The MSIB instead recommended that ships should seek help from their respective flag states, such as Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas, as is often in the case with cruise ships.