Frustrations mount on 2 coast guard ships after COVID-19 exposure

There’s frustration on board two Canadian Coast Guard vessels docked in Dartmouth, N.S., after crews were exposed to people who tested positive for COVID-19, CBC News has learned. 

Some employees believe the coast guard didn’t act fast enough to tell them they needed to be isolating over Christmas after three contractors on site tested positive for COVID-19 that’s caused by the coronavirus. There are concerns others were exposed.

“It is a dynamic situation so the information is coming out in dribs and drabs,” said Chris Bussey, regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents some crew members aboard the vessels.

“We want to ensure that the crew is kept informed of what’s happening to them.”

The situation affects staff on CCGS Jean Goodwill and CCGS Hudson, and sounds like a game of broken telephone. 

Staff get tested

Bussey said the first notice that something was wrong came on the evening of Dec. 23 when a contractor who had been working aboard the vessels tested positive.

The next day — Christmas Eve — staff on board the vessels were tested.

“As a part of testing, the requirement for isolation was shared verbally with employees that evening,” the coast guard said in a statement on Monday.

It said it then asked Nova Scotia Public Health for more clarification and a written letter that could be shared with the employees.

As it waited for that response, the coast guard said staff could go home if they lived nearby, but if they left, they were told to stay separated from their friends and family.

CBC News has obtained a letter signed by 10 crew members on the Hudson who dispute that.

They said the lockdown was lifted because they were told the infected contractor only worked on the Jean Goodwill.

They left the ship under the impression they did not have to isolate.

Staff on CCGS Hudson say they were told at one point that the exposure was on the Jean Goodwill and their lockdown was lifted. The coast guard says all staff were told they were required to isolate. (DFO Maritimes/Twitter)

The coast guard said it received a letter from Public Health late on Christmas Day that was dated the day before. That letter, which explicitly states all staff need to isolate, was shared with staff. 

“As this situation has been evolving, the advice from Public Health has also evolved,” said the coast guard. 

Staff say it wasn’t until Boxing Day when they learned that the contractor had actually been on the Hudson, and two more contractors on site had since tested positive. 

Some employees feared they may have exposed their families during that two-day window when they went home at night.

“Coast Guard takes its responsibility to protect our crew members seriously,” the coast guard statement said. “This also includes our members’ families and the general public by taking actions as deemed appropriate by Public Health.”

Evolving guidelines

Bussey said he’s concerned about how the situation was handled, but he’s not pointing the blame at the coast guard. He believes holiday staffing also played a role in the miscommunication.

“What the isolation meant early on changed as the situation evolved and as Public Health guidelines evolved,” Bussey said of the situation.

“There is the message that’s being sent and the message that is being received — the layers that it goes through.”

Most crew members are isolating on the ships.

The coast guard said all of the initial COVID-19 test results came back negative, and no one on board is showing symptoms. The crew will be tested a second time after seven days.

Public Health would not comment on how the situation was handled, and it did not answer a question about why the employees weren’t informed directly about the rules instead of going through their employer.

Call for sanitation, compensation

Bussey said there’s another problem with the communication. The results of the COVID-19 tests went to the coast guard instead of each individual employee.

“Any medical information that is personal to the employee should be known just to the employee,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the coast guard was still deciding whether to go through with the scheduled shift change on Wednesday.

Bussey said it’s important that the ships are sanitized before any new employees get on board and that staff are compensated for any time they have to spend in isolation.

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