Nfld. & Labrador

Sailor sounds alarm after Americans approved to join St. John's ship without isolating

Four technicians from a Texas-based company will be joining the Maersk Nexus without isolating for 14 days. The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it isn't keeping a tally on isolation exemptions.

Province says it has no tally on how many people have been exempt from self-isolation

The Maersk Nexus is mandated by Transport Canada to undergo repairs to its water ballast system. The work will be done in Quebec in August. (Maersk Supply Service/Facebook)

Sailors aboard an offshore supply vessel based in St. John's are worried for their safety after the provincial government approved four American technicians to join the ship without self-isolating upon entering the province.

Several crew members on the Maersk Nexus have opposed the company's decision to bring in the workers from Oil States Industries to join them as the ship heads to Quebec for repairs next month.

Oil States Industries has several bases in Texas, where COVID-19 is surging at a rate rivalled only by Florida.

"Under normal circumstances this is a normal procedure, but COVID-19 has changed everything," the crew wrote in an email to the federal government from the ship's email address. "We feel this is a health issue to us and our families."

In response to questions from CBC News, a Maersk executive said the Americans will arrive in St. John's around Aug. 11, and proceed straight to their hotel where they will be tested for the virus. The test must come back negative before they can board the ship, which is due to depart for a shipyard in Les Méchins, Que., on Aug. 12.

They love to talk about safety until it really comes down to it.- Maersk crewmember

"These four persons would have also been tested prior to leaving the U.S.," said  Francois-Xavier Morency, the managing director of Maersk's operations in Canada. "An exemption to quarantine from the N.L. government has been received for these four persons."

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, signed an exemption order May 29, allowing a wide range of professions to skip the isolation period when coming to the province. Included in the order are crew on any vessel.

When not working, they must self-isolate.

The provincial order is in line with a federal exemption to the Canadian-American border closure, which allows essential workers to cross over without the need for isolation.

Premier Dwight Ball said the workers were deemed essential by the federal government.

During a COVID-19 media briefing on Wednesday, Ball said people should fill out the online reporting forms if anyone has an issue with essential workers not following protocols during their time in the province.

A new case of COVID-19 arose in Prince Edward Island earlier this month from a health-care worker who travelled from outside the Atlantic bubble with a similar arrangement. He tested negative upon entering the province, as per regulations, but then tested positive a week later, after working seven shifts at a Charlottetown hospital.

Premier Dwight Ball said last week more than 9,900 people have received exemptions to enter Newfoundland and Labrador, but it's not known how many of them were also exempt from the standard isolation orders.

The provincial government says it hasn't kept a tally of how many people have been exempt from isolation and where they came from. Aside from workers deemed essential, every traveller from outside Atlantic Canada has to spend 14 days quarantined in the province before they can go out in public.

The ship's refit was mandated by Transport Canada before the pandemic. Maersk could have applied to the federal agency to delay the repair work, but opted instead to schedule it for August.

Exemptions undercut safety, says crew member

A concerned crew member spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, as they fear they could lose their job for speaking out. 

They said there is no way to keep a distance of two metres between each worker on the ship, and are concerned what could happen if one of the Texans walks aboard the ship with COVID-19.

Some of the St. John's crew members have vulnerable family members, or have their own underlying conditions that could make COVID-19 a fatal infection.

Maersk has a thorough COVID-19 safety plan, but the crew member said the company undercut any commitments it had to worker safety when it sought exemptions to isolation orders for the Texan technicians.

"They love to talk about safety until it really comes down to it," the crew member said.

Europeans will meet the ship in Quebec

Internal emails provided to CBC show Maersk initially expected there to be 55 people on board the boat once it made the three-day voyage from St. John's to Les Méchins.

A later manifest showed 35 workers, including 10 from the Norweigian company Kongsberg, who are set to join the team in Quebec.

Maersk says those European workers will be working on repairs at the shipyard, but will not be staying on board the ship.

The Maersk Nexus, front, is an offshore supply vessel that services the oil fields off the coast of St. John's. (Maersk Supply Service/Facebook)

"The yard protocols will be followed, including temperature checks of all persons entering the yard," a spokesperson for Maersk wrote in a response to CBC. "All persons entering the yard must also complete a COVID protocol form for the yard. There are no cases in this part of Quebec."

There will be a crew change partway through the month-long refit, and Maersk is also seeking exemptions to self-isolation orders for the Newfoundland and Labrador workers aboard the ship when they return to the province from Quebec.

That's where the whistleblower is worried the worst could happen. The province has become accustomed to life without cases, after spending the majority of the last three months without COVID-19 anywhere in Newfoundland and Labrador.

With restrictions loosened and people living freer daily lives, the crew member worries his ship could be the source of an outbreak.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.

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