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COVID-19 disrupts Marine Atlantic

The MV Highlanders, sister ship to the MV Blue Puttees, departs Port aux Basques on Wednesay, Jan. 20. The Blue Puttees was temporarily pulled from service and held dockside in North Sydney after a crewmember tested positive for COVID-19. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By ROSALYN ROY

UPDATE as of Monday evening, Jan. 25th: On Monday, evening, January 25, Corporate Communications Officer advised that the MV Blue Puttees will return to service . The vessel will depart North Sydney on 11:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, January 26 and the MV Atlantic Vision will return to standby mode.

“All employees currently working on board the MV Blue Puttees have tested negative for COVID-19, confirmed through two separate tests as per Public Health recommendations. These employees are now able to return to regularly scheduled duties,” wrote Mercer.

“The public health agencies in both provinces continue to take the lead on contact tracing and the public health investigation. Marine Atlantic is providing support and assistance wherever possible.

PORT AUX BASQUES – On Tuesday night, Jan. 19, passengers boarding the MV Blue Puttees departing Newfoundland were handed a letter. Across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Brandon Smith, a transport driver, was preparing to board the MV Highlanders in North Sydney.

“They passed out the letter around 10 o’clock that night, to everyone on the parking lot,” says Smith.

While Smith was not given the notice prior to boarding in Nova Scotia, his partner, who Smith did not identify, got one less than two hours before sailing on the Blue, which upset Smith a great deal.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous, that they sailed, knowing there was someone on that boat who was sick. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Smith shared his partners letter on Facebook Wednesday morning, and it rapidly gained traction. Not long after that, Marine Atlantic issued a statement confirming that a crew member on the Blue had tested positive for COVID-19.

According to the statement, Marine Atlantic had been notified by the Nova Scotia public health officials on Tuesday about the positive test. In order to facilitate testing of the rest of the crew and to begin contact tracing, the Blue was held dockside in North Sydney, and its crossings for Wednesday were cancelled. Crew members would also be required to isolate on the vessel.

Responding to inquiries, Darrell Mercer, Corporate Communications Officer, noted that upon receiving the letter, two customers had chosen to forego their trip on the Blue the previous night in favour of a later sailing on the MV Highlanders.

“Approximately 125 employees are being tested, with approximately 65 isolating on the ferry with the current shift. The crew member in question followed all COVID-19 protocols, including wearing a mask and working behind plexiglass barriers, but may have had limited interaction with customers and employees,” wrote Mercer via e-mail.

Mercer said that the crew member had first noticed symptoms after returning home following their shift. Addressing rumours about the employee’s place of residency, Mercer wrote, “Nova Scotia public health is leading this contact tracing based upon where the employee is located.”

“The individual did not leave the vessel during their entire shift onboard. He works in the Passenger Services department and due to the COVID-19 measures in place would have had limited contact with customers.”

By Thursday morning, testing on the remaining crew was complete, although the full results were not expected for at least another 24-48 hours. A second crew member, a resident of Central Newfoundland, had also tested positive.

Marine Atlantic issued another statement about this development.

“The individual, who is currently isolating at home, was part of the same shift as the previously infected employee. The public health agencies in both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador continue to take the lead on contact tracing and the public health investigation. Marine Atlantic is providing support and assistance wherever possible.”

With the Blue tied up in Nova Scotia, Marine Atlantic scheduled the MV Atlantic Vision to fill in its slot.

“This is a challenging time for our employees and their families, and we will continue to work with them and provide support during this difficult period,” noted the statement.

That challenge was also being felt on the Southwest Coast of Newfoundland, where many of the ferry service’s employees reside. Mayor John Spencer, who is part of the town’s COVID-19 Committee, issued his own statement in support of Marine Atlantic’s response.

“The news of a positive virus test result of a vessel employee operated by Marine Atlantic Inc. comes as a shock, but not surprising, given these essential workers are on the frontline of a health crisis and are trying to contain a highly infectious disease that is currently dominating the global community with tragic consequences,” wrote Spencer.

He observed that with the slow down in air traffic and closure of routes, Marine Atlantic’s service is more important than ever. That service, however, means there is an inherent risk to the town and by extension the Southwest Coast region.

“Port aux Basques is a Gateway to the Province and as such, the majority of all ground transport comes through this town. This creates a certain amount of vulnerability, whether it is the simple gesture of grabbing a coffee or gassing up. We can never be too careful in looking out for the health and safety of each other. We care and residents care for the health and safety of all.”

The Mayor offered high praise to Marine Atlantic employees, but conceded, “We also have to be realistic. We know it does happen elsewhere. No matter how much effort we put into protecting each other there is always the possibility of a breach in protocol. One slip can be tragic.”

To date, the Southwest Coast has remained relatively unscathed through the global pandemic. There are no known cases of COVID-19 within the region, and Spencer implored residents to keep doing their part to avoid changing that.

“We are doing exceptionally well. We need to continue working and helping each other through the use of good hygiene, distancing, masks in indoor spaces and respect for each other… that (through) all of our collective efforts we do care about keeping our southwest communities virus-free.”

On Friday morning, Jan. 22, Mercer provided a status update regarding the crew of the Blue Puttees.

“It is our understanding that the testing is complete, we are just awaiting results. We are only aware of the two cases at this stage,” stated Mercer via e-mail.

On Friday morning, Mayor Spencer issued another statement of his own, this time to announce the temporary closure of the Bruce II Sports Centre while awaiting the remainder of the test results.

“The vulnerable population and vulnerability for community transmission rises when you consider PAB’s pivotal role as the main supply route for almost all goods and services to the province. Anyone entering and exiting the province by road comes through here. Staying safe using an over abundance of caution is not an unrealistic goal,” stated Spencer.

The town planned to re-examine the pause of the activities at the Bruce II on Sunday, Jan. 24.

Responding to inquiries, Spencer noted that the decision had come in consultation with the town’s COVID-19 Committee, and that there were no plans to close any additional facilities.

Tara Pye, Regional Director of Communications for Western Health, also responded to e-mail inquiries.

“There is capacity for COVID testing on the Southwest coast. Anyone involved in a COVID-19 case investigation will be contacted by public health. If individuals require testing, arrangements will be made.”

“In addition, the province has issued a public advisory for passengers who travelled on the Blue Puttees between Dec 29, 2020 and Jan. 16, 2020 to contact 811.”

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