Nfld. & Labrador

Marine Atlantic ferry out of service after crew member tests positive for COVID-19

One of the Marine Atlantic ferries operating between North Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, N.L., has been temporarily pulled out of service for COVID-19 testing after a crew member tested positive.

The Blue Puttees temporarily taken off North Sydney-Port aux Basques route for crew testing

A crew member who was recently aboard Marine Atlantic's Blue Puttees ferry has tested positive for COVID-19. (Paul Pigott/CBC)

One of the Marine Atlantic ferries operating between North Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, N.L., has been temporarily pulled out of service for contact tracing and testing, after a crew member tested positive for COVID-19.

Public health officials in Nova Scotia contacted Marine Atlantic about the positive case on Tuesday, the Crown corporation said in a release Wednesday, saying the crew member who tested positive had recently been aboard the Blue Puttees.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said that while the risk is low, anyone who travelled on the Blue Puttees between Dec. 29 and Jan. 16 should get tested.

Darrell Mercer, Marine Atlantic's communications manager, said employees work on a 15-days-on, 15-days-off rotation schedule, with some overlap. It wasn't until the employee's shift ended on the weekend that they started experiencing symptoms and got tested in their home province of Nova Scotia, Mercer said.

Since the employee didn't leave the boat for the two weeks they were on shift, Mercer said it's likely they caught the virus while working on the ferry.

"In consultation with public health, they recognize that there was probably another source for that infection, so through the contact of customers they're hoping that maybe they could find out the additional source and then maybe again take those steps to trace it back," Mercer said.

This is the first positive test of an employee, "so we know our measures have worked," Mercer said, adding there will always be a risk. In total, Mercer expects 125 employees to be tested before any decision can be made about putting the Blue Puttees back in service.

Darrell Mercer is the corporate communications manager with Marine Atlantic. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Mercer said that while the employee in question was working with customers, the COVID-19 regulations in place mean the likelihood of transfer is considered low.

"They would be wearing a mask, they'd also have a plexiglass barrier [during] any interaction that they have, and once an employee is off shift, the interaction with other employees is also limited," Mercer said.

Marine Atlantic received the information late Tuesday afternoon, Mercer said, and under the advisement of both provincial health authorities, allowed for the evening crossing to take place — with a letter handed out to customers before they boarded advising them of the situation.

Mercer said two of the customers scheduled to cross on the Blue Puttees on Tuesday night opted to wait until Wednesday morning to cross on a different ferry instead.

"You're trying to balance the needs of everybody, so again public health … they didn't have any real concerns about us sailing last night, and as soon as we arrived in North Sydney this morning we did take the measure to take the vessel out of service," Mercer said.

Contact tracing underway

Mercer said only two close contacts of the confirmed case have been identified so far.

Contact tracing is underway, and both the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador governments have said that all crew members who were on the vessel and completed their shift, as well as crew members currently on the shift, should be tested.

In order for that testing to take place, the Blue Puttees had to be taken out of service to allow crew members to get tests and isolate while awaiting results.

During that time, the boat will also undergo enhanced cleaning, Marine Atlantic said in its release.

The crossings scheduled for Wednesday have been cancelled. The Highlanders will remain in service, and the Atlantic Vision is preparing to enter service should it be required in the days ahead.

During the pandemic, Marine Atlantic has brought in additional measures to ensure safety, including enhanced cleaning, customer screening, physical distancing and reduced passenger limits.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador