Seafarers' union demands vaccine plan for 15,000 marine workers after COVID outbreak on Atlantic Huron

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The union that represents 15,000 Canadian marine workers is demanding the government come up with a plan to vaccinate seafarers after the most recent COVID-19 outbreak on the Atlantic Huron, a Canada Steamship Lines bulk carrier.

The ship, now anchored in the St. Lawrence River, often plies the Great Lakes and was delivering iron ore to Quebec City when the crew got sick last month, according to Jim Given, the president of the Seafarers' International Union of Canada.

Given says that over the course of the pandemic more than 50 cases of coronavirus have been reported on Canadian ships. Two marine workers have died due to these outbreaks.

In September, six of 23 crew members on the Vega Rose, a bulk carrier anchored off Metro Vancouver, tested positive for COVID-19.

On April 1, the crew on the Atlantic Huron tested negative, but by mid-month a total of 18 of the 25 crew on board wound up testing positive for COVID-19. 

"It's becoming a nightmare and there's zero indication on how the government plans to vaccinate marine workers. They can't just go ashore and make an appointment," said Given.

As COVID-19 infection rates rise in the country, and now on ships, Given said the situation is putting Canada's supply chain at risk, because marine workers help deliver the bulk of Canadian goods.

Now, workers in this $30-billion-a-year sector are shaken, he said, and with the crew on many Canadian vessels due to change shifts soon, it's getting tougher to find replacements because of fears that the work environment on board ships is not safe, given the current rise of COVID variants.

"They are scared. They don't want to work. They don't want to go to the ship," he said.

Crew often spend three to four months on board a vessel. They work, eat and sleep in close quarters, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread.

Given said the nature of their work makes it difficult to get a vaccine, as ships travel from port to port and crew don't remain in one city for more than a day. That's meant many maritime workers are missing vaccination opportunities as age-based shot rollouts march forward.

He's urging the provincial and federal governments to make a plan and says he wants to see sailors vaccinated so they can be safe and stay on the job.

Donna Leddy says she was the chief cook on the March sailing of the Atlantic Huron that ended in a COVID-19 outbreak, involving the B117 variant.

Instead of serving up chicken wings and steak, she's now quarantining in a Thunder Bay hotel after the majority of her crewmates tested positive.

Leddy says her vessel was heading to Quebec City to deliver iron ore when a deckhand first fell ill. Within a day, a mate was throwing up and feverish.

"You are breathing in the same air and stuff spreads, not unlike what happens on a cruise ship," said Leddy.

She says she has sailed for 26 years but described this passage as harrowing. Leddy has an underlying health concern: lupus.

The Huron Atlantic had to reverse course and anchor in the Thunder Bay harbour where nurses came out on a tug to test the crew for COVID.

At first Leddy tested positive, but says she was later cleared.