The vaccine rollout is underway, but the fight ahead is still long. Even as vaccines are being distributed, at least three new variants of the coronavirus (first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, respectively) are spreading around the globe, with perhaps more variants to follow as the virus continues to mutate. According to some sources, the Brazil variant may be capable of infecting people who had already recovered from the first wave of coronavirus.
Health experts also caution that while the vaccines approved so far appear to be remarkably effective in protecting the recipients, it’s not clear whether they prevent them from spreading the virus. Masks and other protective measures will need to be in place for a long time yet; the Biden administration has just nationalized some mask orders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued useful guidance documents followed by many states. The states themselves have been given the lead role in distributing the vaccine, with each state crafting its own policies and priority lists for who gets the vaccine and when. Most states are giving front-line health care workers and the elderly vaccine priority, something everyone agrees with. But transportation workers, including inland towboat crews and shoreside personnel, should surely be high on the list.
The challenges of distributing vaccines to crews of long-haul towboats that cross state lines are not insurmountable, but they do represent more costs of doing business added by the virus. We need state and local decision-makers to be thinking about ways to meet these challenges. At the best of times, inland mariners can be an invisible population, even in some states with extensive inland waterways.
That’s why The American Waterways Operators has been “working at the national and state levels to urge priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine for mariners,” according to its latest newsletter. AWO has led a coalition including the American Association of Port Authorities; Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals Inc.; and the American Pilots Association in sending letters to 25 inland and coastal maritime state governors and their respective health department leaders urging them to prioritize mariners and frontline maritime transportation workers in state vaccine distribution plans.
In addition, AWO joined a coalition of transportation organizations on a letter urging the National Governors Association to support early vaccinations for essential freight, rail, port and waterway, and energy workers. Since all transportation workers are essential, and all play a role in transporting the materials and vaccines to combat COVID-19, that is something we certainly support.
For its part, the American Association of Port Authorities, along with 37 national and regional maritime organizations including Waterways Council Inc. and Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals, is keeping the attention of the White House and Congress focused on maritime workers with letters urging the inclusion of maritime workers in the next COVID relief package.
The AAPA letter urges Congress to include emergency relief for the maritime industry in the next COVID-19 package through the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Program, which was created by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. This new program authorizes MarAd to solicit applications for aid from those across the maritime industry, both inland and coastal, and provides grants to those most in need due to emergencies or disasters. This includes aid to help mitigate the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This program could conceivably be used to solicit grants to groups and agencies getting vaccines to mariners and port workers.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has had a significantly negative impact on the maritime industry,” the AAPA letter reminds members of Congress. “Passenger movements remain virtually nonexistent, with operations not expected to resume for months. Expenses have greatly increased due to COVID-19 protocols and precautions that have been put in place to ensure the health and safety of staff, and these extra costs borne by the industry to keep supply lines open are above and beyond the normal costs of operations.”
We hope that states, and all those involved in distributing vaccines, will remember to include towboat crewmembers, as well as truck drivers, railroad workers and workers in ports and terminals among those essential to commerce and make them eligible for early vaccination. We thank our advocacy organizations that are helping them remember to do that.
As the vaccine spreads and the economy recovers, keeping trucks, trains and towboats moving, with healthy crews and workers, will be more important than ever. The sooner we all get the vaccine, the less likely mutations of the virus will play a role, the faster business will get closer to resembling normalcy, and the sooner the economy will pick up steam.