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The Coast Guard has officially warned Miami-based, Bahamian-registered cruise ships to seek medical aid in foreign nations as health care facilities in the Southeast are strained during the coronavirus pandemic. Coast Guard officials also advised that ships bolster their medical capabilities, personnel and resources in order to care for those onboard who are sick with influenza-like illnesses — like COVID-19 — for an “indefinite period.”
On Sunday, the Coast Guard’s 7th District Area of Responsibility (AOR), which includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico, plus 34 other foreign nations and territories, issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin explaining the new directive amid the global outbreak of the viral disease.
The Zaandam cruise ship, left, carrying some guests with flu-like symptoms, is pictured anchored near the bay of Panama City on March 27. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
“Due to the outbreak of respiratory illness caused by COVID-19 and its impact on mariners and vessel operations, an increased number of foreign passenger vessels have required medical evacuations of both stable and critically-ill persons, including those with an influenza-like illness (ILI) such as COVID-19,” said E.C. Jones, Coast Guard Rear Admiral and Seventh District Commander.
“Although the Coast Guard continues to prioritize the safety of life at sea and the safety of U.S. ports and waterways,” he said, “the recent increase in medical consultations, ultimately resulting in medical evacuations (MEDEVACs) has placed, and is expected to increase, strains on local medical resources throughout the Seventh District AOR. Medical facilities in the Port of Miami, for example, are no longer accepting MEDEVAC patients due to the limited hospital capacity and is expected that neighboring counties will follow suit.”
Jones explained that the demand for medical services across the Seventh District has led to the creation of field hospitals, “whose capacities for dealing with critical patients is unproven” at present.
“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,” Jones emphasized.
“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 ILIs for an indefinite period of time,” he continued. “This is necessary as shore-side medical facilities may reach full capacity and lose the ability to accept and effectively treat additional critically-ill patients.
“These requirements are effective immediately and are necessary to facilitate navigation and vessel safety, protection of the marine environment, and the safety and security of crew, vessels, ports and waterways within the Seventh District AOR,” the memo concluded.
“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.”
— E.C. Jones, Seventh District Commander, U.S. Coast Guard
Moving forward, cruise ships that seek to send a sick person to shoreside medical facilities must first check with the Coast Guard, the Miami Herald reports. If they are permitted, the cruise line should then coordinate commercial transport to the land, a private ambulance and confirm that there is hospital space available for the patient.
The new mandate applies to Bahamian-registered, Miami-based cruise ships like those owned in the fleets of Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International. As of Tuesday, about 17 ships floated near Port Miami and Port Everglades, the Herald reported, with over a dozen others offshore. Though most of the vessels are said to be only carrying crew, some others are still carrying passengers as they head towards South Florida.
Two Holland America cruise ships, the Zaandam and Rotterdam, are currently hoping to dock in Florida later this week. Four people died aboard the Zaandam last week, though the cruise line has not confirmed their cause of death. At least 189 passengers and crew were also experiencing flu-like symptoms, and some tested positive for the coronavirus.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has actively tried to get the ships diverted away from the state, arguing that Florida’s hospitals cannot handle any more COVID-19 patients.
“There are no great choices left. These are all tough outcomes,” Coast Guard Captain Jo-Ann Burdian told South Florida officials at an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
Fox News’ Michael Bartiromo and the Associated Press contributed to this report.