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‘I need this very badly’: International cargo crew gets COVID-19 vaccine at Port of Vancouver

Click to play video: 'Rare look at vaccination campaign for crews of foreign ships in B.C.' Rare look at vaccination campaign for crews of foreign ships in B.C.
Global News was invited along for a rare look at a program to vaccinate the crews of foreign vessels that dock in B.C. Emad Agahi explains why the program is making a difference. – Sep 23, 2021

Eighteen crew members of the Odysseas – L freighter were vaccinated Thursday as part of Vancouver Coastal Health’s effort to immunize seafarers against COVID-19.

The Greek shipping vessel, which travels between Canada and Japan, has been at sea for more than 10 months, and Capt. Narciso Santillan said he was pleased his crew had “the chance” to get a shot.

“I need this very badly because maybe they will not allow me to board the airplane,” he told Global News during the pop-up vaccination clinic. “The airports are requiring vaccination, so what can we do?”

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According to Vancouver Coastal Health, the pandemic has extended the length of time at sea for many seafarers, some of whom haven’t gone home for a year or more.

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Many don’t have the opportunity to be vaccinated either, unless they dock in Canada or the United States, said Marta Filipski, operations leader for VCH’s vaccine campaign.

“They’re going to other areas that are also vulnerable, where there is Delta variant that’s rampant, and they are quite worried and afraid,” she said. “Then they go back to their families and they’re worried infecting their families.

“… So this is a real sacrifice they’ve done for our global economy, and so it feels like the right thing to do to vaccinate these seafarers.”

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The seafarer vaccination program has been up and running for a little more than a month, and already, roughly 200 crew members have been vaccinated on 14 ships.

Other health authorities in the province are running seafarer immunization programs too, added Filipski, teaming up with the provincial and federal governments, local ports, and other partners.

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Aboard the Odysseas – L, which was docked in Vancouver to load grain, crew members could be heard saying they were “happy” and “excited” to be immunized, even though some expressed concerns about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

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“It’s good for everybody because they are protected, but of course, the doubts — you cannot say — because of the fake news,” Santillan explained.

Despite some questions raised, he said everyone on his crew list agreed to receive a vaccine from VCH.

“I feel normal, it’s just because I’m strong,” crew member Marlon Ruedas said, after receiving his first dose.

“We need to pursue that what the government is saying to us. We are protected by the medicine.”

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The VCH immunization team has up to eight members, including those delivering the shots, an infection control clinician, as well as administration and “aftercare” staff.

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To date, doses have been administered to sailors from around the world, including the Philippines, China, India, Korea, and Ukraine.

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Filipski said the team can set up a clinic in 10 minutes, immunize the crew, clean up and leave within an hour. She described the work as rewarding.

“COVID has been such an interesting time for healthcare and we’ve had lots of really neat opportunities and partnerships along the way,” she explained.

“This is just one of those crazy things, where waking up in the morning you never thought you’d be on a freighter providing these essential vaccines to seafarers and meeting so many wonderful people.”

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