How vaccines are getting onto vessels

Seattle has found novel ways to help seafarers get their Covid protection

By Verity Relph

As key workers who are vital to the global economy, there can be little argument against seafarers being prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine. Yet despite significant progress in the second half of 2021, there is still a long way to go. The great disparity from country to country in vaccination availability and shore leave restrictions, together with the peripatetic nature of life at sea, mean that receiving one, let alone two, doses of the vaccine remains a challenge.

The Mission to Seafarers and other local seafarers’ welfare organisations have been assisting where they can with facilitating vaccinations for visiting crews. Where possible, seafarers are being taken to local pharmacies and health providers and, in some places, being vaccinated on board ship.

One port which has seen a very successful vaccination programme for seafarers get off the ground is Seattle.

It all started with a phone call in late April of this year. The director of strategic operations for the Northwest Seaport Alliance reached out to Cristi Chapman, executive director of the Seattle Seafarers Center, suggesting a partnership with the Tacoma Seafarers’ Center and Discovery Health MD, a local clinic specialising in providing medical support to vessels at sea. By May 11, the first crew had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Prior to the pandemic, Discovery Health had worked closely with the Alaska and Pacific Northwest seafood industries, and, because of this, they had a good relationship with the Washington State Department of Health. This put them in a good position to run testing and vaccine programmes for the state when Covid struck.

Helping seafarers

CEO and founder of Discovery Health MD, Dr Ann Jarris, interim COO, Andrew Eaton, and director of immunisations, Taylor Pellizzari, spoke with The Sea about their seafarer vaccination programme and their partnership with the Seattle Seafarers Center.

As Jarris explains: “We were getting requests for vaccines for foreign seafarers, who were eligible but couldn’t get ashore to receive the vaccine. Washington state realised how important the marine economy is and how important foreign seafarers are to the economy and worked with us to prioritise vaccines for them. We were able to train staff to go out on launches and board vessels. Because we had such a good relationship with the Department of Health and because the seafood industry had been so well organised, we had all the pieces in place when we were asked to do it.”

Pellizzari adds how important the partnership with Seattle Seafarers Center has been: “We met with Cristi Chapman and things took off from there. Both the Seattle and Tacoma seafarers centres have been a great partnership with us. They communicate to the dispatch and to the seafarers themselves, giving the message about Discovery Health and the opportunity to receive the free vaccine on board. It has definitely helped spread the word and got the vaccines to a population that logistically is hard to reach.”

The company have four full-time mobile vaccination teams that operate seven days a week across Puget Sound and the waters of Washington. They offer the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, with most seafarers opting for the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “The majority (98%) choose to receive J&J,” says Pellizzari, “as it’s a single dose vaccine and logistically that makes the most sense for them. But if they do request a different type, such as a second dose of Pfizer, we can sort that for them.”

Vessels coming into the Port of Seattle can reach out to the Seafarers Center or contact Discovery Health directly. “The captain or their agents let us know when they’re going to be in town, how many crew they have on board, and they work with our scheduling team to find a time that aligns with their schedule,” explains Pellizzari. “We can also do launch rides if they’re at anchor and that’s the only opportunity for them to receive vaccines.”

They also have a static site in the port at Pier 90 and the Seattle Center has been providing transport for those able to get ashore for their vaccinations.

Programme success

Since starting the partnership, 3,190 sea- farers had been vaccinated as of October 2021. Booster shots are now available as well. The programme has meant that these crews are safer and more protected, and that shore leave and returning home to see loved ones become closer realities once more.

Having a unified approach has been key to the success of the programme. A crucial aspect was finding people who had the ability to both find access to vaccines for seafarers and the right resources and infrastructure to deliver them. Sadly, many ports are not yet in the position to be able to offer vaccines to crew.

When asked the question of whether the industry has done enough, Jarris reflects: “There should be governmental initiative. We can be efficient in doing this in Washington state, but our scope doesn’t extend beyond Alaska. So, this isn’t a failure of the industry but a failure of governmental organisation, so it has fallen on welfare organisations like the local seafarers centres and NAMMA.”

She adds: “Our goal is to vaccinate as many people as we can. Please if people are coming through the Puget Sound area, reach out to us.”

In addition to Covid-19 vaccination and testing programs, Discovery Health MD offers a suite of maritime focused products, including SeaDoc 24/7 Physician Advisory Services, Fitness for Duty screenings and health questionnaires, and an employer portal to track the health and wellbeing of your crew. For more information go to or contact them at [email protected].

Verity Relph is a project support officer at The Mission to Seafarers.


The Covid-19 vaccine: your questions answered

The Discovery Health team respond to some key questions and myths about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Why do I need to get vaccinated?

The reason to get vaccinated is to prevent severe illness, hospitalisation, and death and to stop you spreading it through co-workers. Seafarers are living together in small, confined spaces which increases the risk of disease transmission, and they are also travelling to many places. Furthermore, when a vessel comes into port with active Covid cases on board, the delay, cost and expense to the crew, the inconvenience to the company, and the inconvenience to the supply chain can be catastrophic. There are a lot of reasons to take as many steps as you can to ensure your vessel stays Covid free.


Can you mix two different types of the vaccine?

Typically, we don’t want to mix and match the types of vaccine that you receive, but in some circumstances, exceptions can be made. A lot of seafarers come having had a dose of a vaccine that we don’t have here in the US, so we would give them a second dose of a vaccine which we do offer. They would just need to wait 28 days between those two doses.


How can I access the vaccine?

Getting access is one of the bigger challenges, particularly when seafarers are unable to leave their vessel. In Seattle, we have built a mobile model of going to people to deliver the vaccinations, but every port is different.

Details of vaccine availability in ports around the world is provided by the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) and the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA):


The vaccines were developed so quickly – are they safe?

When we step back and look at this, we’ve been doing vaccines for over 200 years. mRNA technology (used to create the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines) has been around for over three decades. The reason you haven’t seen them before is because they’re expensive and nobody wanted to pay for them or to build the cold chain storage to trans- port them. A lot of energy and resources were put into developing the vaccine at a faster pace, and the amount of safety data is tremendous and more than for most medications in your medicine cabinet. These vaccines are our way out of this pandemic.


I’ve already had Covid, why should I have the vaccine?

There are a lot of differences between the type of protection and immunity that you get from the vaccine vs natural infection. The immune response can be from 10-100 times higher from a vaccine than if you got the immunity naturally from infection. We also know that the vaccines have a different response in your body than a natural infection, so people with natural immunity might not have the same type of protection from variants that we’re seeing. We know that the vaccines are offering a lot of protection against these variants.


I know people that have had the vaccine and still got Covid, so what’s the point?

No vaccine out there is 100% effective against everything, so we’re not surprised to see breakthrough cases, but with the vaccine you are less likely to have severe symptoms and to be hospitalised, and your chances of getting the virus are significantly smaller. Based on what we’re seeing in the US, the vast majority of people in intensive care and critical care environments who are ventilated and dying are unvaccinated individuals.

The end points of the vaccination efficacy studies were protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death. Even though someone is vaccinated and gets Covid, the chances of them becoming seriously ill is far, far less.


Can I stop taking precautions after having the vaccine?

The vaccine is one solution, but we still need to take other precautions to have the most successful approach against Covid. Vaccines are an essential part of fixing this problem, but they are only one part of a layered approach.

For more information about the Covid vaccine, see this publication from the ICS: