The U.S. Coast Guard is telling foreign-flagged cruise ships to increase their medical capabilities in order to care for patients with flu-like symptoms for an “indefinite period of time” as shore-side medical facilities become overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
The stark guidance was issued in a March 29 Marine Safety Information Bulletin issued Rear Admiral E.C. Jones, Commander of the USCG’s Seventh District, which includes the cruising hub of Florida, as well as Puerto Rico, Georgia, South Carolina.
Although the Coast Guard says it continues to prioritize safety of life at sea and the safety of U.S. ports and waterways, the sudden increase in cases requiring medical evacuations is straining local medical resources throughout the Seventh District’s Area of Responsibility. The Port of Miami, for example, is no longer accepting MEDEVAC patients due to limited hospital capacity, according to the MSIB.
“The demand for medical services across the Seventh District AOR is leading to the establishment of improvised field hospitals, whose capacities for dealing with critical patients is unproven at this time. It must be considered that a potential evacuee has better access to comfortable surroundings and medical staff on board the foreign passenger vessel where care is already being provided,” the MSIB states. “To ensure the safety of persons on board and mitigate the potential of overwhelming local medical resources, all vessels operating within the Seventh District AOR with more than 50 persons on board should increase their medical capabilities, personnel and equipment in order to care for individuals with [influenza-like illness] for a indefinite period of time. This is necessary as shore-side medical facilities may reach full capacity and lose the ability to accept and effectively treat additional crticially-ill patients.”
Although the MSIB says MEDEVACs will still be considered if deemed necessary after consultation with a Coast Guard surgeon, the vessel owner or operator will be required to secure commercial transportation ashore and confirm hospital availability before any such evacuation is authorized.
The MSIB instead recommends that ships should seek help from their respective flag states, such as Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas, as is often in the case with cruise ships.
“Foreign flagged vessels that loiter beyond U.S. territorial seas, particularly those registered to The Bahamas, that require MEDEVAC to a shoreside faciliy should seek flag state support prior to seek support from the limited facilities in the U.S.,” the MSIB adds.
The MSIB further reminds Masters of vessels within U.S. waters of their duty to report daily on the number and conditions of any sick persons on board, as required by U.S. law.
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February 17, 2021
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