Fishing Company under Fire for Keeping COVID-19-Infected Crew at Sea for Three Weeks

Júlíus Geirmundsson

Test results show that 22 out of 25 shipmates on freezer trawler Júlíus Geirmundsson contracted COVID-19 while out at sea. The ship’s management is currently under fire for not calling the ship to harbour when crew members started showing symptoms, despite repeated requests from doctors. The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions has issued a statement condemning the ship’s owners’ failure to follow guidelines for discovering the disease at sea.

Despite crew members developing flu-like symptoms one by one, Júlíus Geirmundsson didn’t return to harbour until it needed to refuel last Sunday, after three weeks at sea. During refuelling, the crew was tested for COVID-19 but left again for the fishing grounds before the results were in. They returned as soon as it was discovered that the majority of the crew had contracted COVID-19. While some have recovered and tested positively for COVID-19 antibodies, others are still in isolation and the three who did not contract COVID-19 have to go into quarantine.

A statement on the Gunnvör Freezing Plant’s website yesterday read: “The company would like to state that soon after flu-like symptoms were discovered among the crew, the Westfjord Healthcare Institute was contacted. It was concluded that there was no reason to call the ship to harbour at that time. After fishing for three weeks, it became clear (following crew testing) that there were COVID-19 infections aboard and the ship was immediately returned to harbour. In light of the knowledge we now have, the ship should have been called to harbour, and the whole crew tested sooner.”

The declaration didn’t appease critics, as some interpret it to suggest the tour got a green light from doctors to continue fishing. Hákon Blöndal, the ship’s first engineer, called out the fishing company’s explanation on Facebook, employing salty language to call the declaration an attempt to bury their misconduct and spread misinformation. “This isn’t the whole story, and people have to grow a pair and admit their mistakes,” says Hákon.“If a suspected COVID-19 infection comes up, the captain should contact the Coast Guard so they can decide the next steps. In this case, correct work processes weren’t followed; the crew didn’t get the benefit of the doubt and was put at great risk!” When Vísir contacted Sveinn Geir Arnarsson, captain of Júlíus Geirmundsson, he declined to comment.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason was asked about the incident during yesterday’s information briefing. He wasn’t up to date with the exact details of the matter but stated that when an illness comes up at sea, the right reaction is to return to harbour and be tested. If that had been done immediately, perhaps some infections could have been avoided.

Súsanna Björg Ástvaldsdóttir is a doctor with the Westfjords Healthcare Institute and the regional epidemiologist. She told Mannlíf that her instructions always have been and always will be to go in and get tested, no matter where you are in the world. “I can confirm that that’s the communication that occurred between the fishing company and me, early on in the tour. My instructions are very simple.”

The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions issued a statement saying that considering the regional epidemiologist’s account of how her repeated requests that the boat return to harbour were ignored, the fishing company’s response shows disdain for their crew. “The company seems to have only been thinking of its financial gain, with no regard for the health and welfare of their grew. The Icelandic Seamen’s Federation condemns the disdain the company showed the ship’s crew by continuing fishing despite the sickness onboard.” They state in no uncertain terms that they consider the fishing company to have gone against best practices during pandemic times, ending their statement so: “The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions demands that Icelandic fishing companies follow guidelines on response to infections onboard to the letter and that they don’t put the lives and wellbeing of their crew at unnecessary risk during these dangerous times.”