When a cargo ship pulls into the Port of Boston, crew members are often in need of toiletries or electronics, or maybe someone to talk to after a long stretch at sea.
These days, however, many of the foreign workers onboard also need something even more urgent: a COVID-19 vaccine.
About 20 percent of the 1.6 million seafarers around the world have been vaccinated, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. The majority of them come from countries with low inoculation rates and may be out at sea longer than usual — sometimes for more than a year — due to pandemic-related border restrictions, giving them even less of a chance to roll up their sleeves for a shot. And with infection rates rising, the shipping industry is warning that sick or stranded crew members may lead to worldwide staffing shortages that could disrupt trade and further damage already battered global supply chains.
In May, a ship with 13 infected Filipino crew members docked in Indonesia, leading to 42 COVID cases among the medical workers who treated them, according to news reports. Around the same time, China closed one of its busiest ports for weeks after at least one dock worker tested positive. Last month, the World Health Organization added seafarers to the list of transportation workers prioritized for COVID vaccines.
In an attempt to mitigate the situation, members of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, a Christian association, started making efforts to vaccinate foreign seafarers when they arrive at US ports. So far, more than 40,000 have been inoculated in the United States, according to the association, which doesn’t include cruise ship crews. About 370 seafarers hailing from the Philippines, India, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, and Greece have been vaccinated in New England ports.
“It’s the global maritime business that keeps the world running,” said the Rev. Stephen Cushing, executive director of the New England Seafarers Mission, a maritime ministry based in Boston. “We owe it to them to welcome them to our country and to give them whatever care we could possibly give them.”
Since June, New England Seafarers Mission and Seafarers’ Friend, a ministry based in Chelsea, have been managing the local vaccination effort in coordination with the State of Massachusetts, the US Coast Guard, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and several shipping lines. Seafarers get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot, provided by CIC Health (which ran the state’s four mass vaccination sites) and administered onboard by Cataldo Ambulance Service staff. This allows crew members without a US visa, who aren’t allowed to go ashore, to take part without leaving the ship.
The two local maritime ministries involved in vaccinating foreign seafarers — Seafarers’ Friend, a nonprofit born out of the Congregationalist Church, and New England Seafarers Mission, affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago — have been around since the 1800s. In addition to providing chaplain services and spiritual guidance, the organizations help seafarers contact loved ones and purchase supplies, along with bringing them care packages and offering assistance with money transfers, translation, and medical services, such as blood-pressure clinics.
James LaPaglia, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy student interning at Seafarers’ Friend, has helped out with about half-a-dozen onboard vaccination clinics this summer, escorting Cataldo paramedics onboard and visiting with the crew. In late July, he went onboard a ship carrying sand and gravel staffed by more than 20 Filipinos, all of whom got vaccinated.
Onboard, LaPaglia and the Cataldo staff were greeted by a sign reading “Welcome onboard Boston Seafarers. Thank you US government.” The chef made them chicken and rice for lunch and brought out a cake that said, “Thank you.” One crew member even played his guitar.
On a recent muggy Friday morning, two dozen officers and crew members aboard the Blue Alexandra, a bulk carrier picking up scrap metal in Everett, rolled up their sleeves for shots in the officers’ mess. The men, again mainly Filipinos, took pictures of each other holding up a piece of paper printed with the words “I got vaccine in Boston, USA” and compared vaccine cards. A number of them were flying home that day to see their families for the first time in months, and the mood was buoyant.
“They’re very relieved,” LaPaglia said, of the seafarers he’s witnessed get vaccinated.
About 13 percent of the global maritime workforce comes from the Philippines, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, but 98 percent of the country’s seafarers are unvaccinated.
Nationwide, less than 12 percent of the Filipino population has been fully vaccinated, according to the scientific health publication Our World in Data. The rate is also low in other countries with large populations of seafarers: Ukraine (7.2 percent fully vaccinated); Indonesia (9.4 percent); and Russia (23.7 percent). Data is not available from China, which also supplies many maritime workers.
Indian and Filipino crew members almost always want to get vaccinated, according to the local ministries, but the rate is lower for Russian and Ukrainian workers.
Captain Vladimir Shashkov, of Ukraine, and his crew from India, the Philippines, Russia, and Greece were all vaccinated in Boston on June 27. “All crew on board are happy and now free from the fear of getting COVID,” he wrote in a message to the Globe. Now “there is no need of quarantine at the country of arrival.”
Jim Ricker, Boston port chaplain for Seafarers’ Friend, said unvaccinated Filipino crew members have told him they have to quarantine not once but twice: first when they arrived back in the Philippines, and then again when they reached their home province, adding to their time away from their families and taking up precious off-duty time.
“These guys live such an isolated existence,” he said. “We’re in a privileged position in this country and it’s good that we’re able to use that position to help others.”
Praying with lonely crew members and helping them call their families is important work, said Cushing, the Seafarers Mission director. But providing a life-saving vaccine is something else entirely.
“This brought it to a whole different level,” he said, “caring for their soul and their body in a global pandemic.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.