A ‘black swan’ event presents unusual challenges
Maritime shipping accounts for 90% of global trade, supplying us with many of our personal needs. The Port of Virginia is a major driver of the Virginia economy, generating 7.5%, or $39 billion, of Virginia’s gross product, $23 billion in labor income, about 400,000 jobs and $2.1 billion in state and local taxes and fees in 2018.
With the arrival of COVID-19 in America, ports are national news. On March 9, the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey contracted the virus, while 21 passengers tested positive on a cruise ship berthed at the port of Oakland, California. By the end of March, more than 1,000 Virginians had confirmed cases.
Many wonder about the ability of the Port of Virginia to handle this challenge.
Priority No. 1 is containing and mitigating coronavirus on ships calling on Virginia ports.
So-called “black swan” events are difficult, says port spokesman Joe Harris, but “the port has a working group that meets twice a week. They simulate major health events (e.g., ebola), practice removing sick [people] from vessels and track where ships have been in previous port calls.”
The port works in close coordination with local hospitals, military facilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Norfolk police, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard (which makes initial contact with vessels) and the Virginia Department of Health.
Some restrictions the port has implemented:
The Coast Guard considers it a hazardous condition if anyone, regardless of where they have traveled or who they have interacted with, shows symptoms of COVID-19 or other flu-like illness. This requires immediate notification to the nearest Coast Guard captain.
Vessels destined for a U.S. port are required to report to the CDC any sick or deceased crew/passengers during the 15 days prior to arrival at the U.S. port. U.S. flagged-commercial vessels are also advised to report ill crewmembers in accordance with the requirements of each foreign port called upon.
The Port of Virginia has isolated berths available for emergency use where testing and safe transport to hospitals and facilities are possible. They are tracking and in communication with vessels to identify problems and ask specific questions, such as, “Do any of your crew or passengers have symptoms consistent with COVID-19?”
An article in the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Hospital Infection reported that “human coronaviruses … can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days,” according to studies.
“On copper and steel … it’s pretty much about two hours,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told the U.S. House of Representatives in February. “But I will say, on other surfaces — cardboard or plastic — it’s longer.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in late February it has no evidence that COVID-19 has been transmitted from imported goods. Containers shipped from Shanghai, China, to Hampton Roads are in transit for about 30 days, and even goods from Naples, Italy, are in transit at least 17 days, so the probability is near zero that the COVID-19 virus has survived the journey on cargo containers or the goods inside.
It is also virtually certain that the COVID-19 virus can be efficiently inactivated by common surface disinfectants within one minute. For maritime cargo, the issue for Virginians is not risk of infection. It is the current production and shipping shortfalls from contaminated areas that will affect the availability, variety and cost of goods we desire.
Also, the demand for goods on all sides will decline because of sickness, inability to work and cost of goods. The virus and trade tariffs have served a potent, but hopefully short-term, trade punch.
K. Scott Swan, a professor of international business, design and marketing at William & Mary’s Mason School of Business, and Roy Pearson, W&M chancellor professor of business emeritus, wrote a November 2019 report on the Port of Virginia’s economic impact.