Longshoremen Potentially Exposed to COVID-19 on Two Russian Reefers

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Two Russian cargo ships are at the center of a cluster of new COVID-19 exposures at the port of Busan, South Korea. 16 out of the 21 crewmembers aboard the vessel Ice Stream and one aboard the Ice Crystal have tested positive, and hundreds of people – primarily longshoremen – are believed to have come into contact with them. 

Since the pandemic began, Busan has had a relatively low COVID-19 case count, thanks in part to the Korean government’s successful testing and containment effort. The possibility of reinfection from an external source has raised concerns among the public in Busan, according to Yonhap. 

The yard-and-stay geared reefer Ice Stream is responsible for the largest number of potential exposures. She arrived in Busan from Vladivostok carrying a cargo of frozen seafood last Sunday, according to South Korean media. As her crew did not plan to disembark, she was not required to undergo the port’s shipboard health inspection process. Her master did not report three crewmembers with coronavirus symptoms before the vessel’s arrival, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The offloading process for a breakbulk reefer ship is typically labor-intensive. According to Korean authorities, Ice Stream’s crew had a full day of port operations – and interactions with more than 120 Korean longshoremen – before local officials learned of a possible outbreak on board. 

Busan’s quarantine officials are considering issuing a small fine to the vessel’s operator for not reporting a coronavirus risk prior to arrival. Going forward, they plan to board and inspect all vessels from Russia before allowing docking at Busan. Previously, only ships arriving from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Italy or Iran were subject to mandatory health inspections.

A second vessel at Busan – the Ice Crystal – has also experienced a COVID-19 case on board. One crewmember from the ship tested positive Tuesday afternoon. Both the Ice Crystal and Ice Stream are owned by the same Russian firm. 

So far, more than 170 potentially-exposed longshoremen, customs officials and others have been quarantined in connection with potential exposure aboard the Ice Stream, along with an additional 90 individuals who may have been exposed aboard Ice Crystal. The seafarers who tested positive have been transferred to a nearby medical center. 

“At this point, it’s hard not to assume that the cargo ship outbreak will grow further,” KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook told The Korea Herald. 

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