SEARSPORT, Maine — Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many of the merchant mariners who move 90 percent of the world’s goods from port to port have essentially been stuck at sea, unable to go ashore.
With ports closed to sailors, many couldn’t go home. Some spent 20 months at sea, according to the International Maritime Organization, an organization that described the issue as an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
The mariners’ plight is often overlooked by people on the mainland. But it hasn’t been overlooked by two Mainers, who last week began volunteering to give COVID-19 vaccinations to the crew members of cargo ships docked at Mack Point in Searsport.
So far, the duo has vaccinated 65 foreign sailors from four different ships, with more scheduled to receive their shots over the weekend.
“They’re really super excited and grateful,” Annie Dundon, a physician assistant and former mariner herself, said this week of the sailors she vaccinated. “All of these crew members had their friends taking photographs of them getting their shots … it was really fun.”
That kind of fun has been hard to come by lately. In normal times, sailors usually are allowed to go ashore when their vessels are in port. But due to efforts to limit the spread of the disease, they’ve been restricted to their ships since last March.
“It’s been tough on them,” said Penobscot Bay harbor pilot Skip Strong, Dundon’s husband, this week. “Stop and think about living on a 400 to 1,000 foot long steel box with roughly 20 other guys, and that’s it. That’s your world. We want to do as much as we can for them.”
Earlier this month, Maine dropped its residency requirement for the COVID-19 vaccine. Strong, who guides the cargo ships safely into port, saw it as an opportunity to help mariners. Many of the sailors hail from countries with very low vaccine availability. With a surplus of shots here in Maine, he figured it was a good opportunity to help people who likely couldn’t get vaccinated for a long time otherwise.
Being vaccinated should keep them from getting sick. It also should make it more likely that mariners will be able to go ashore in some ports and, when they are able to go home, can feel confident they are not going to inadvertently bring the virus to their family and friends.
“We are so fortunate here in this country, and most people just don’t understand that,” Strong said.
At first, he asked state officials if there was a way to bring a mobile vaccination unit to the Sprague Terminal at Mack Point in Searsport.
“They weren’t really able to get anything going,” he said.
But Strong wasn’t out of ideas, or connections. Foremost among those is Dundon, who has worked at Mount Desert Island Hospital’s Community Health Center in Southwest Harbor for 20 years. Before that, she spent five years at sea on tankers. She understands the hardships of the job.
“You’re just stuck out there for months on end,” she said. “For a lot of the foreign crews, they have an eight or nine month contract. They have children they’ve never seen. It’s heartbreaking. Whatever we can do to make life easier. And a lot of people around here are like, ‘I don’t need the vaccine.’ These crews are from places where it might be a year or more before they have the opportunity.”
She asked her employer, Mount Desert Island Hospital, to see if they could help. They could, initially offering 70 doses of the Johnson & Johnson “one and done” vaccine, which would be the most practical option for the sailors. The hospital’s pharmacy staff even provided information inserts about the vaccine shots in the sailors’ native languages, including Russian and Tagalog.
“The hospital has been great,” Dundon said. “The crew at the pharmacy has been fabulous.”
The timing was also right. Last week, there was an unusually high amount of traffic at the dock, with several vessels pulling into port to unload cargoes including wind turbine blades, petroleum coke and slag, which is used as a binder to make cement. They would all stay there for at least a day, meaning that there was time for Strong and Dundon to get to Searsport from Mount Desert Island and administer the shots. He did the paperwork while she put the shots in the crew’s arms.
“It happened really quickly once we got the ball rolling,” Dundon said.
Not all the sailors have wanted the vaccine. But 65 sailors from Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and the Netherlands have been glad to say yes.
“They’re so happy, just so excited,” she said. “It really could make the difference for them, when they go home and feel like they’re not bringing something home to their families. And maybe in some ports, they’ll be able to go ashore.”
For Dundon, coming to the port to help vaccinate the crews aboard four ships added something like 24 hours of work to her week. She’s a little tired. But she’s also been very glad to have the chance to do it.
“COVID has been a really hard year for everyone,” she said. “While it’s a lot of work on top of my regular job, it just feels really good. It lightened my load. We’re making a difference, and it feels good.”
Correction: Photo cutlines on an earlier version of this report misspelled Annie Dundon’s last name.