STEVEDORES loading ships around the country are not accepting the Covid-19 vaccine, Tairawhiti’s medical officer of health says.
Unvaccinated port workers won’t be moved on from work yet but it could happen in the future, a government policy adviser today told Local Democracy Reporting.
From midnight, all work in managed isolation and quarantine will be done by people vaccinated against Covid-19.
Under the health order, all government officials must also be vaccinated before doing work in other high-risk border settings.
It comes as Hauora Tairawhiti district health board discussed that only four of 40 stevedores were vaccinated when the roll-out began with border workers in Gisborne on February 27.
More stevedores had been vaccinated since, Hauora Tairawhiti chief executive Jim Green said, but he was “not exactly sure” how many or of the number who remained unvaccinated.
Stevedores who had so far denied the vaccine said it was their “human right” to refuse while others just didn’t think it was necessary.
Mr Green said stevedores and most other maritime border workers in Gisborne were tested for Covid-19 every 14 days, and this, combined with Tairawhiti being a “low-risk border”, meant there was “minimal opportunity” for Covid-19 infections to enter.
Most ships that arrive in Gisborne Port have been at sea for longer than 14 days and/or have come from places with no local spread, he said.
Hauora Tairawhiti medical officer of health Dr Osman David Mansoor said the low uptake of the vaccine among stevedores was “a bit of a concern”.
It prompted Dr Mansoor to write to Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield on April 23.
He asked Dr Bloomfield whether vaccination of border workers should be the main defence against the virus, rather than regular testing.
“It might encourage people to have the vaccine if they knew they wouldn’t be swabbed,” Dr Mansoor said at a Hauora Tairawhiti board meeting on Tuesday.
‘ . . . this situation with stevedores is not a local issue, it’s a national one’
“I haven’t seen any data but I understand this situation with stevedores is not a local issue, it’s a national one. But again I haven’t seen any actual data, just getting reports that that is the group across the nation that has got low coverage,” Dr Mansoor said. As a “remediation strategy” they had offered the vaccine to household contacts and “those around” the stevedores.
Ministry of Transport policy manager Brent Johnston said while vaccination was not a legal requirement for stevedores, the Government wanted to ensure all workers had every possible measure in place to protect the people, communities and workplaces from Covid-19.
“We strongly encourage stevedores and other workers carrying out high-risk roles at maritime ports to be vaccinated.
“Advice around how to maximise the uptake of vaccinations among the wider border workforce is being prepared.
“This will include options to expand the scope of the health order to include non-government workers carrying out specified high-risk work at the aviation and maritime borders.”
The Ministry of Transport was preparing this advice in conjunction with a range of other government agencies, Mr Johnston said.
Dr Mansoor said another challenge faced during the roll-out of the vaccine was the Covid-19 Immunisation Register (CIR) not being “fully functional”.
Human right to say ‘no’: port workers
“We don’t have that precise coverage data on the port workers or the health workers.”
When asked at the meeting what proportion of stevedores in Gisborne had been vaccinated, Dr Mansoor said he could not provide precise figures.
Dr Mansoor said the two main reasons he had heard from stevedores not getting the vaccine was that “they don’t need it”, because they didn’t believe Covid-19 was serious, and that they didn’t know the long-term impacts of the vaccine.
“It is a matter of personal choice but obviously it works only as well as we can get the whole community protected.
“That’s always going to be a challenge for us and how we can move forward in that space given there seems to be substantial concerns.”
Hauora Tairawhiti board member Tony Robinson called the lack of coverage data on stevedores “an Achilles heel”, saying it was the “riskiest entry point” for the virus into the region.
A man who works in Gisborne’s shipping industry, and has received both doses of the vaccine, said he questioned colleagues on why they didn’t want to be vaccinated.
“The ones I’ve spoken to have said it’s not compulsory and it’s their human right to say ‘no’. They feel if they don’t want to have it then they shouldn’t have it.
“I’ve actually said to them I think they should have it, I think everybody in the shipping industry should have it.”
He believed a lot of workers within stevedoring were hesitant to be vaccinated.
“Some of them are saying there’s not enough information. I totally disagree.”
However, he believed the public had the wrong impression of shipping and it was “not the danger”.
“These ships in particular are coming from China —20 days. They’re sitting out at anchor here for up to 10 days. The quarantine period is 14 days. They’re having up to 30 days of quarantine.
Ships from China ‘super safe’, others a greater risk
“These ships are super safe.”
Ships that were a greater risk were those coming from Australia and places where the travel time was less than 14 days, he said.
Describing the work of stevedores, he said they loaded and unloaded container ships — fertiliser, kiwifruit, logs, “the whole lot”, and said they often travelled from port to port around the country, filling in where work was needed.
Hauora Tairawhiti did not know the number of border workers in the region or the number of their household contacts.
Mr Green said this was “not a concern” and Hauora Tairawhiti was “happy with the detail recorded in the CIR”.
In late February, Hauora Tairawhiti estimated the number of border workers and household members as 300.
According to the Covid-19 immunisation register, 92 border workers in Tairawhiti had received the first dose of the vaccine as of April 27. Of these, 65 had received the second dose.
Fifty-three household contacts of border workers had received the first dose and of those, 42 had received the second dose.
ISO Ltd is the only stevedore operator in Gisborne and also works in 13 other ports around the country.
ISO declined to comment.
The Ministry of Health did not respond before publication.
NO TO VACCINE: Only four of 40 stevedores were vaccinated when the roll-out began with border workers in Gisborne on February 27, but Hauora Tairawhiti says more have been vaccinated since.Picture by Liam Clayton