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Can coronavirus enter Coastal Bend through the Port?

Could the coronavirus be brought into Corpus Christi by visiting sailors
Posted at 1:22 AM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 02:22:53-05

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it's only a matter of time before the U.S. sees an outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus, despite serious efforts to contain the spread of the virus, especially at border crossings.

Another front line in the fight is the nation's ports, such as the Port of Corpus Christi.

The tracking website FleetMon said there are 63 vessels in port as of Tuesday afternoon, several flying foreign flags. Everyone aboard those ships is subject to new federal regulations added in response to coronavirus.

About 12,000 foreign crew members visit the Port of Corpus Christi every year. Many spend months at sea, stopping at several ports along the way, which raises coronavirus concerns.

"I know they're concerned, because they say so," said Corpus Christi International Seamen's Center Executive Director Sharon Emerson. "I do ask that question when they come in, and they say they're a little concerned about it, but the company is protecting them."

But who's protecting Coastal Bend residents? Since the coronavirus outbreak started, the federal government has changed its policies for commercial shipping. As of earlier this month, commercial vessels which have been to China within 14 days are only allowed into U.S. ports if nobody on-board is sick. Those vessels have to report any illness or death aboard ship to the CDC within 15 days of arrival, and if anyone aboard gets sick in port, the Coast Guard must be notified immediately.

When ships arrive in port, crew members often call the Seamen's Center.

"They need to get off the ship," Emerson said. "This is a home away from home for them."

The center offers crew members rides to go shopping, or just a place to relax. Seamen's Center employees typically spend more time with foreign crew members than anyone else locally. Right now, they're not worried about exposure.

"None of my drivers are worried about picking them up, taking them, bringing them here," said Emerson. "If they're sick they're not allowed to leave the ship. They don't give them their visas, and they can't leave the ship without a visa."

Emerson said she hasn't spoken to any crews who have been to China since the outbreak, though a ship was leaving for China early Tuesday morning. She said the Filipino crew told her they were staying north of Singapore, away from the hardest-hit areas.

In a statement, the Port of Corpus Christi said "The Port of Corpus Christi supports the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in their efforts to mitigate any health risk to the Coastal Bend community. We work in close coordination with area emergency managers, public health officials and preparedness groups, and we maintain continual communication with the U.S. Coast Guard. We have full confidence that appropriate coordination will occur if an individual displaying flu-like symptoms with a history of travel to mainland China is identified onboard a vessel. The safety of our employees, customers and community remains the top priority for the Port of Corpus Christi.”