No person — crew member or passenger — will be allowed to disembark the state ferry M/V Tustumena tonight in Homer until Capt. John Falvey gives his approval.
That’s the message the general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System had during a Monday afternoon press conference with Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities representatives, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Section of Epidemiology representatives and members of the local Homer Emergency Operations Center.
“I know there was concern about people coming off the boat initially when the ship arrives,” Falvey said. “And I’ve given the captain orders: No one goes ashore until I say so.”
Sailings of the Tustumena have been postponed while the AMHS addresses cleaning the vessel and replacing the crew.
According to Falvey, AMHS contacted the U.S. Coast Guard in Anchorage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Alaska, DHSS and Public Health personnel in Dutch Harbor once the agency was notified about a crew member’s exposure to a confirmed case of COVID-19 around 1 p.m. on Saturday. The Tustumena then docked in Unalaska, and 21 passengers boarded for about an hour before they were asked to disembark.
The crew member was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 but did not have a temperature. Falvey said their temperature was taken. After running into a few issues, such as the local clinic being closed, Falvey said medical equipment was secured to test the crew member, whose test came back positive at around 6 p.m. Saturday.
The crew member was put into isolation in a cabin where ventilation was was cut off from the rest of the ship.
All 35 crew members and the six remaining passengers who originally boarded the ship in Homer docked at the Homer Ferry Terminal shortly after 7 p.m., and were tested by South Peninsula Hospital — a total of 41 people. The ship has been running with the minimum number of crew members necessary, and all others have been quarantining aboard the boat and doing health and temperature screenings twice a day, Falvey said. All remaining crew members and passengers are residents of Alaska, Dr. Joe McLaughlin of the Section of Epidemiology confirmed.
The 21 passengers who boarded the vessel shortly in Dutch Harbor were allowed to return to their homes and were given instructions to self monitor for symptoms.
Sixteen crew members were identified as close contacts of the crew member who tested positive. So far, they are all fellow crew members, not passengers. All but one of those crew members who were identified as close contacts remain aboard the ship and are quarantined. The one employee who is a close contact and who disembarked the Tustumena at Dutch Harbor has returned to their home and was given instructions for quarantining and self monitoring for symptoms.
Falvey and McLaughlin spoke at length during the press conference about how the passengers and crew members will be allowed to leave the Tustumena once it arrives in Homer. After their test swabs are taken, McLaughlin said people will be able to leave the boat while their tests are still pending, but only if they can secure private transportation back to their home or final destination, and only if they can safely quarantine in that location.
Taking public transportation where a bus driver or airplane pilot could be exposed to a crew member or passenger from the Tustumena will not be allowed, McLaughlin said. Falvey said public transportation is generally how AMHS gets it employees home — a lot of them are from the Anchorage and Kenai areas, he said.
“It initially looks like we may have a very difficult time getting the crew off of the boat, given some of the stipulations that we have as far as their travel,” Falvey said.
Falvey said AMHS is looking at potentially bringing in a commercial cleaning service “to really clean the boat well.” He said the original plan was to replace the current crew with a new crew as soon as they were off the vessel and it was disinfected. The system is looking at a potential shortage of workers, and Falvey said that was a challenge AMHS was working on before it got the protocols from DHSS that will make it more difficult to get certain crew members off the boat.
McLaughlin clarified during the press conference that the stipulation of crew members having to remain on the ship if they can’t secure safe, private transportation back to their final destination really only applies to Monday night. He said the state will work with any passengers and crew members who cannot easily get home without exposing someone via public transportation to create a plan for them to disembark safely.
“Fortunately all of these people, as we understand it, are Alaska residents, and so we should be able to get them back to their homes for quarantine,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out … it may be a challenge for some of these folks of figuring that out.”
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the local Homer EOC has floated several plans and options, which include having crew members quarantine locally in Homer.
“We do have numerous plans in place, and big shout out to the Homer EOC for partnering with us to think about other options if we need them,” she said.
South Peninsula Hospital will conduct testing through the night for the 41 people arriving on the Tustumena, Zink said. She thanked the local hospital and Homer’s Unified Command for their partnership.
Falvey said he’s doesn’t have a set timeline for when the Tustumena will return to service. It depends on when the vessel can be thoroughly cleaned and whether AMHS can get all crew members off the boat and into quarantine elsewhere. Originally, he had been shooting for a restart date of June 13, he said.
The Tustumena had just returned to service for the summer the previous Tuesday, and this was its first run from Homer along the Aleutian Chain. The vessel provides regular service between Homer, Kodiak and Seldovia, as well as to more remote communities along the Chain. Falvey said that while the ship has limited is maximum capacity to 60 passengers to adhere to social distancing, the Tustumena carries a lot of freight and materials, especially between Homer and Kodiak.
Any passengers who had reservations for a trip on the Tustumena will be contacted and refunded, according to a press release from AMHS. For more information, visit dot.alaska.gov/amhs/.