Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told lawmakers that the service is “looking nationwide to support CDC and other frontline organizations on the medical front in terms of prevention, protecting, mitigating spread” of the coronavirus.
The Coast Guard’s “number one priority is the health and safety of the American people,” Schultz said at a budget hearing Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation & Maritime Security.
“Maritime traffic on cruise ships has been a very focal area,” he said. “We were involved — our 11th District commander — in working with all the port stakeholders as the Grand Princess was brought into Oakland the other day. So, we are providing maritime technical expertise to the vice president’s task force. We’re working the issues on the waterfront.”
That involves working with multiple stakeholders including unions and ports. “Those cruise ships typically in San Francisco, for example, tie up over in downtown San Francisco. It took a lot of moving parts that the Coast Guard was involved in.”
Schultz said throughout the pandemic the Coast Guard “will continue to focus, one, on public safety; two, to lend our expertise as a federal maritime agency.”
About 4,000 vessel arrivals happen in the United States on a monthly basis, the commandant noted. “We look at all of them. There’s a criteria called 96-hour advanced notice of arrival. CBP looks at cargo; we look at people,” he said. “…Say it’s a cruise ship: If their transit is more than 14 days, there’s different criteria than if you’re inside that 14-day period. If it’s inside 14 days you don’t come to the dock.”
“We’re looking at cargo vessels. So, in the port of Los Angeles-Long Beach we look at all those cargo operations coming in. We find out if there’s anybody on board that’s presenting with any type of medical symptoms,” he continued. “We work with CDC — that they are met either by CDC folks or local health reps. Typically, those cargo operations haven’t been allowed to proceed. The crew members are restricted to the confines of the ship, the port. Ship does its business and gets back to sea.”
Coast Guard operations aren’t included in the initial $8.3 billion COVID-19 supplemental, but Schultz said that “we are keeping a running account of what our Coast Guard bills are in here for possible subsequent funding.”
“But to date, we’re managing this inside our existing funding profile,” he added.
Asked whether coronavirus has impacted the Coast Guard mission, Schultz replied that “we are a multi-mission service by definition.”
“We have the bandwidth to manage this,” he said. “I mean, we have the folks in the port. It has been ’round the clock here for days. I would be remiss to not call that out.”
Despite the current extra strain, Schultz said, “I think we can manage our other mission areas.”
“Our law enforcement missions, our rescue missions, our enhancing economic prosperity on America’s waterways, aids to navigation, that continues. We’re an organization of almost 42,000 uniformed men and women, so this is front and center. It is very relevant and critically important to the American public. It has our top priority and we’re informing the decision makers in government with best military maritime expertise.”
At the onset of the outbreak, Schultz assured lawmakers, “the first thing we took was stock of our personal protective equipment — PPE, we call it — for our men and women.”
“Our men and women interface on the water. We would be involved in those medical evacuations potentially of a COVID-19 impacted patient. So, yes we’re looking at that. We’re looking at our stocks,” he said. “There’s finite quantities so we’re making sure we inform our needs and not exceeding our ask. But we’re in a good spot now with what we need and continuing to track the situation and ensure that our first and foremost our frontline operators are doing this safely and continue to do the important work the nation needs them to do.”