NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - As government agencies do what they can to mitigate transmission of the Coronavirus, a group of Louisiana locals take precautions to protect themselves and others.
Faced with the potential for danger every day, river pilots must stay vigilant.
“Whether it’s our river levels or bad weather conditions or something along those lines where we have the potential for a worldwide epidemic,” explained Associate Branch Pilots President Captain Michael Miller.
Tasked with navigating incoming vessels from the Gulf of Mexico, river pilots like Miller come into contact with crews from all over the world.
“Initially, when the Coronavirus reared its ugly head, our pilots were obviously concerned,” Miller said.
When he realized the threat, Miller says he met with partners like the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol to discuss necessary precautions.
“We instructed all of our pilots to avoid close contact, to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently. We did provide masks if they wanted them,” explained Miller.
River pilots say government agencies are keeping a close eye on vessels, monitoring crew members’ travel and restricting access if one of a ship’s last five ports of call was in an infected area.
“All we can really do is follow the Coast Guard. They’ve got their procedures. So far we haven’t seen any cases but this thing does seem to be spreading,” said New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association Capt. Steve Hathorn.
River pilots tell me captains coming into port are required to notify the Coast Guard and Customs if anyone on board is ill or face a fine. Even so, they say they’re still on alert because they’re some of the first to board these foreign vessels.
“We have a level of trust at all times. They are trusting us as a pilot to come on board and pilot their vessel safely and we are trusting that their vessel is in good shape and their crewmembers are in good shape as well,” Hathorn said.
Hathorn doesn’t believe a captain would keep a sick crew member a secret, but he says river pilots don’t have to take them at their word.
“Sometimes, the pilots get a little concerned when they see a crew member that is ill. They can question it further if they don’t like the answers they get. They can report it to the Coast Guard. They would come out, quarantine the vessel,” explained Hathorn.
Though chiefly in charge of maneuvering vessels on the Mississippi, these river pilots say they also have a responsibility to protect their community.
"We're just staying vigilant so we can to help prevent things from getting out-of-control," said Miller.
River pilots say part of the custom when boarding a vessel is to greet captain and crew with a handshake. They say it’s perfectly acceptable, just like during flu season, to avoid close contact with others and to opt out of such traditions.