Safer on my ship

Safer on my ship

Cruise line crew afraid to fly home

Managing editor

Friday, May 15, 2020

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FEARFUL that they may be exposed to people infected with COVID-19 if they're transported on aeroplanes, Jamaican crew members on-board the Disney Fantasy cruise ship are appealing to be allowed to make the trip home via the safety of the vessel that has housed them over the past few months.

They insist that the ship, and the more than 1,000 people on-board, are free of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Flying home is not high on their list of preferred options; however, it's a choice some say they would consider if all passengers boarding flights were tested for the virus.

“About 90 per cent of the 1,100 of us on the ship have this concern [about getting infected while on a flight or at the airport],” one Jamaican crew member, who asked not to be named, told the Jamaica Observer on Wednesday.

Jamaicans make up 216 of those on-board, he said. The ship was originally scheduled to be in Jamaica on May 25, the crew member explained, and he and his fellow countrymen are hopeful this schedule will be maintained and they'll be allowed to disembark.

Meanwhile, one Trinidadian crew member is hoping a scheduled May 18 stop in nearby Grenada will provide an opportunity for the ship to make a stop in her country. If not, she said, indications from the Trinidad and Tobago Government are that she would not be getting home until August or September during the sixth phase of that country's opening up.

For now their days, she said, revolve around cleaning the ship and ensuring that all established protocols are followed.

“We have no cases on-board, we're doing social distancing, we're following CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) protocols,” agreed a female Jamaican crew member.

They have been rattled by news that six of the positive cases who entered Jamaica under the Government's controlled re-entry programme were crew members of the Marella Discovery 2 cruise ship. The Marella crew were among a group flown in from the United Kingdom on May 6, and the Disney Fantasy crew members believe they were infected after leaving the vessel.

“Moving from the ship to airports is a big danger. Transmission can happen between these points,” said another male Jamaican Disney Fantasy crew member who argued he would feel better if all individuals were tested before being allowed to board flights.

Another of his colleagues suggested that even airport and airline workers should also be screened.

A vital part of the Jamaican Government's strategy in the battle to keep COVID-19 from overwhelming the country's fragile health care system has been to monitor passengers once they have landed. One of the early challenges was tracking those who came into the country between March 18 and 24, as efforts were made to determine if any had brought the virus with them. Some of this group have since been among the 41 imported cases recorded up to Wednesday. So too have been Jamaicans deported from the US, despite assurances before they arrived, that they were all COVID-19-free.

Yesterday evening the Ministry of Health and Wellness reported that the number of positive cases remains at 509 and 118 people have so far recovered from the virus which has been responsible for nine deaths in Jamaica.

Speaking at a digital press briefing on Monday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness noted that Jamaica cannot rely on others to do testing for us. This appears to be the case for those on-board the Disney Fantasy. Though adamant that they are COVID-19-free, none of the crew members have been tested, according to one crew member. He theorised that this is because the ship's medics do not have enough testing kits so they have opted not to test anyone.

In the US, the issue of testing has had its fair share of controversy, with mixed signals from the White House and medical experts on the availability of tests for all who wish, versus need, to be tested.

Among the 210 people who arrived in Jamaica on Wednesday, as the Government ramped up its controlled re-entry programme, 96 were from New York one of the areas in the US hardest hit by COVID-19. On the day they arrived in Jamaica, chief medical officer (CMO) in the Ministry of Health Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie was unable to say whether they had been tested prior to entering the country. People coming into Jamaica are not required to undergo testing for COVID-19, she explained.

“On the Jamcovid app [used for persons applying for controlled re-entry] there is a question that is asked if persons have been tested,” the CMO said during a digital press briefing on Wednesday. “There is not a requirement for testing, but the information on testing is taken on the app. I'm not able to report how many persons from this batch [that arrived on Wednesday] had indicated that they were tested and what were the results, but we do not have it on the app as a requirement. The question is asked if a test has been done.”

Jamaica is not the only country grappling with these issues in a global environment that has been transformed by a virus which has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands around the world. More than a month ago, The Guardian newspaper in England reported that UK scientists and politicians were hoping to learn more about “immunity passports” that would be based on work being done by German researchers.

In March, the Observer carried a story that mentioned a Jamaican man successfully getting a health certificate as part of his effort to leave Cairo, Egypt. But in a scientific brief on April 24, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out the flaws in this approach of giving people clean bills of health.

“Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could serve as the basis for an immunity passport or 'risk-free certificate' that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” the WHO said then.

The focus now is on antibody testing, a method that Dr Joshua Anzinger said may be useful in screening airline passengers and airport staff. Anzinger is a member of The University of the West Indies (UWI) COVID-19 Task Force that developed tests now being used locally. He is also director of the Global Virus Network, Centre of Excellence at The UWI and part of a UWI Mona research team now doing a draft proposal to get the go-ahead to explore whether an antibody developed by an American firm called Abbott would be just as effective in Jamaica as it has been in the US.

“This test is extremely good, and so you're very confident… that if you're positive, yes it is this particular virus [that causes COVID-19]. And so these tests become much more important, especially for someone who was possibly exposed weeks ago or perhaps even earlier,” he said.

Dr Anzinger explained that PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which are now being widely used in Jamaica, would be less effective in screening large groups of people who have no symptoms and have no history of coming into contact with an infected person.

“You really are just completely shooting in the dark [under those circumstances]. The majority of times you might test it's going to be negative,” he said. “The chances of coming up with a positive are probably very, very slim unless you have some sort of targeted approach for being symptomatic.”

That type of blanket PCR testing, he added, would ultimately come down to resources. “It's a very complicated thing on multiple levels, whether you are even able to get tested, what these results mean, and the possibility for infection during transit as well,” he explained. “Look at the White House, they test every single day. If you have those resources certainly that is the best possible situation you can be in testing every single day. But you have to be practical. So if you can test [airport personnel] every five days, do that. If you can do it every day, do that. It's really a resource issue in my mind. It's just a numbers game. By doing as many tests as possible the higher your chance of [getting a positive result].”

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