Teams of doctors and nurses have been administering COVID-19 vaccines at pharmacies, medical centers and fairground clinics for months, but on the Columbia River, teams also have boarded ships to vaccinate seafarers.

Martin Larson, a Columbia River inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation, said the international crews that receive free vaccinations at the clinics are incredibly grateful.

For most of the pandemic, each country’s rules meant the international ship crews were not allowed to get off in ports and instead had to wait in long quarantines before seeing their families back home.

Larson just arranged an on-ship clinic for a crew from the Philippines in Portland, and said due to vaccine supply, the sailors had not expected to get a vaccine until 2023 back home.

“You can only imagine how grateful these guys are to get it,” he said.

Several local groups have been working to get sailors at the Longview, Kalama, Vancouver and Portland ports vaccinated, including Community Health Partners, International Transport Workers Federation, Medical Teams International and Cowlitz County Fire District 5.


Partnerships with ports

Executive Director of Community Health Partners Ken Dale said ports and port associations reached out to the organization after hearing Community Health was traveling to give out COVID-19 vaccines.

“They asked if we were interested in helping crew members on the freighters, and our response is … our goal is to give as many vaccines out to people as possible, wherever they come from,” Dale said.

Susan Wendel, Community Health Partners medical health-care advocate, said it can also be expensive and difficult for crew members to get shore leave to attend an off-site clinic, which is “why we’ve offered to take the nurses onto the ship.”

Kate Mickelson, executive director of the Columbia River Steamship Operator’s Association, said Washington and Oregon state government, as well as county officials along the Columbia River “have been incredibly supportive and have worked tirelessly to ensure that clinics, staff, vaccines and other resources were available to seafarers.”

“Throughout the pandemic, crew with visas were detained on board and were unable to leave to get vaccinated,” Mickelson said. “This was generally the case worldwide. Thanks to the hard work of so many, and with the support of our federal partners, especially our local U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, vessel agents have been able to bring vaccination teams aboard ships to vaccinate crew members.”

While some of those restrictions are starting to lift, uneven international vaccine supply is still limiting the ability of crews to get off ships. Mickelson said federal partners “maintained around the clock coordination throughout the pandemic to support the continued flow of commerce for our region and have truly gone above and beyond. “


Outreach to all

Dale said Community Health Partners gives Johnson & Johnson shots, so “We don’t have to worry about rendezvousing with them a second time.”

So far, they’ve given between 40 and 50 doses to crew members at different local ports, including the Port of Longview and the Port of Kalama. Trained Community Health volunteers give the injections, and appointments are made for specific ships that show an interest from crew members.

Nurses board the ship, give the vaccine, then watch the crew for any reaction to the shot for 15 to 20 minutes before making sure the crew members have their vaccine cards, Wendel said. Dale said the group works with ships to find a time the volunteers can make it, then starts the process of getting approval to transport the vaccines.

“To take vaccines off-site, you need to have a special refrigerated box to carry it in,” Dale said. The temperature of the vaccines has to be monitored, and there’s a “whole bunch of red tape” and procedures to follow.

“It’s monitored very closely,” Dale said, but Community Health Partners has experience in pop-up clinics. Volunteers also have given J&J shots at the CAP food giveaway and different homeless encampments.

“We’re trying to do outreach instead of having them come to us,” Dale said. “Basically, we’re getting to be known in the area that we have a vaccine and we’re willing to give it, no strings attached.”

The vaccine is free, and Community Health Partners is “trying to do everything we can to encourage people to get a vaccine,” Dale said, though Community Health Partners “never turns down a donation.”

Larson said to the crews and to the International Transport Workers Federation, “Community Health Partners are heroes.”