Sea Sick: Quick action required when COVID-19 comes on board

Apr 1, 2020 by Keith Murray

Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

Today, as I am writing this, the experts are still learning about the coronavirus. In this column I am going to point out what is known and appears to be factual, and what is believed to be true.

Please note, this information may change as scientists learn more. For the most up-to-date and accurate information, please visit or the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control website at

What is the coronavirus? 

According to the CDC, the novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, such as the common cold.

Is the coronavirus worse than the flu? 

I am hopeful that the coronavirus will not be as bad as the seasonal flu we see each year in the United States. The CDC estimates that so far this flu season in the U.S. there have been at least 36 million flu illnesses, 370,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths from flu. During the 2018- 2019 flu season, the CDC reported that 42.9 million people were sick with the virus, 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 died.

Is coronavirus worse than Spanish flu? 

 The Spanish flu pandemic (1918 – 1919) was the most severe pandemic in recorded history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus. According to the CDC, an estimated 500 million people – which, at the time, was about 1/3 of the world’s population – caught the virus. Between 50 million and 100 million people were killed by the Spanish flu; 675,000 of those people died in the United States.

How is the  coronavirus spread? 

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that seems to be spreading much like flu. Assuming this is true, the flu is a highly contagious respiratory infection that generally enters the body through mucous membranes in the mouth, nose or eyes.

Generally, when a flu-infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus becomes airborne. This live virus can then be inhaled by anyone in the area. You can also get the flu if you’ve touched a contaminated surface, such as a toilet handle or a doorknob, and then touch your nose or mouth. The risk of infection is greater in highly populated areas like schools, buses, cruise ships and airplanes.

Who is most at risk? 

Similar to the flu, older adults and people with compromised immune systems and other health conditions appear to be at higher risk for serious complications. 

What are the symptoms of coronavirus? 

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. 

Should I wear a face mask? 

Many people are asking if this will protect you from the coronavirus. Experts are stating that the regular surgical face masks are not likely to be effective. The more specialized N95 respirator masks can protect against the new coronavirus. The respirator is thicker than a surgical mask. As of today, neither the U.S. Surgeon General nor the CDC recommend it for public use.

What if someone on board is sick? 

Individuals suspected of being sick should be separated from other passengers and crew as much as possible. They should also wear a face mask to prevent the airborne spread of the virus. Proper hygiene is very important. These individuals should be reminded of the importance of covering their mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.

Screening and Isolation

If a passenger or crew member has any flu or coronavirus-like symptoms, before leaving port they should be advised against traveling and examined by qualified medical personnel. This is not only best for the individual, it is best for everyone else on board. 

Passengers and crew with symptoms who are already on board when the symptoms begin should be medically evaluated and remain isolated in their cabins until cleared by qualified medical personnel.

If you are sending a passenger or crew member with symptoms to a medical facility, you should notify the facility in advance. Also use care in transporting the sick person; you don’t want to accidentally infect others along the way, including drivers and hospital personnel.

Limiting exposure to others

If the sick individual shares a cabin with someone else, the healthy person should be moved to another cabin when possible. This will lessen the chance of them becoming infected.

Limit the time spent with the sick person to as little as possible. Limiting the number of people that visit the ill person is also advisable. When possible, assign one person to deliver meals, medication and other necessities. This person delivering care should wear a disposable mask and gloves.

Wash your hands!

If someone on board is sick, it is very important that all passengers and crew be reminded to wash their hands often with soap and water, or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The CDC recommends washing your hands for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, about 20 seconds. During class I often use that same technique, but also state that 30 seconds would be even better, especially if you know you are working with sick people.

Clean all surfaces

Cleaning all surfaces on board is also important, especially doorknobs, handrails, bathroom faucets, refrigerator handles, TV remote controls, computer keyboards, and toilets – including the seat and toilet handle. Cold and flu viruses can survive on these surfaces anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Personal protective equipment

In past articles I have talked about the importance of carrying a sufficient quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as facemasks, N95 respirators and disposable gloves. Crew members and guests who may have contact with sick persons should be instructed in the proper use, storage, and disposal of PPE. More importantly, the sick person should wear a mask to prevent the spread of aerosolized particles being spread when they cough.

In summary, this is a new virus and scientists are still learning new information every day. Things can change quickly, so please check the CDC website often, make certain you have enough PPE for everyone on board, and make certain everyone is washing their hands. 

EMT Keith Murray provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service. His company can be found at Comments are welcome below.