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COVID Info for Volunteers

* Updated 6 December 2022

The safety of our patients and crew is our highest priority. Below are answers to some commonly asked questions concerning our COVID-19 safety measures.

Why does Mercy Ships require a COVID-19 booster for all volunteers serving during an active field service?

Providing our patients with a COVID-free environment is essential. Simply put, our patients are at significantly increased risk of dying if they get COVID—and that risk of dying extends to them being infected with COVID even after they’ve received surgery. We feel that our current stance is the best approach to maintain the safety of our patients and crew and that medical facts support our guidelines as best practice.

Keeping our patients free of COVID, not just before surgery but afterward, can reduce the post-operative mortality rate by as much as 50 percent. Boosters help increase our odds because vaccine efficacy decreases over time—and with each new variant of the virus, it decreases a little bit more.  

What is a Bivalent COVID-19 vaccine?

The bivalent COVID-19 vaccines include a component of the original virus strain to provide broad protection against COVID-19 and a component of the omicron variant to provide better protection against COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant

Why is the Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccine Booster required only for crew in close contact with patients?

Volunteers who provide direct patient care, as well as those who are in close contact with the hospital and patients, are required to receive the Bivalent booster for the safety of both patients and crew.

Are boosters required for crew on ships not in an active field service?

Boosters are highly recommended for ships that are not in field service but will not be required. If your current commitment extends into a field service or you wish to extend your current non-field service commitment, be aware that there are additional vaccination requirements, including being up to date with COVID vaccines.

How can I be sure I am “up-to-date" with my COVID booster?

  • Once 270 days have passed since completion of your primary vaccination, a booster is needed.
  • Only one booster is needed.
  • If a person has already received a booster 270+ days after completion of primary vaccination, no further booster is needed.
  • Healthcare personnel must have a bivalent booster, if available in their country.

What if a booster is not available in my home country? Will my application be denied?

For all volunteers who are willing but unable to receive a booster before arrival due to availability, and who are not considered up to date, all attempts will be made to provide the booster in Tenerife or Senegal prior to the first patient’s admission to the hospital. Those who are not willing to comply with the requirements to be considered up-to-date, and who do not qualify for an exemption, will not be allowed to volunteer on board during an active field service.

Volunteers in the hospital are expected to get the Bivalent vaccine booster. What if this booster is not available in my country?

We realize that not all countries offer the Bivalent booster.  Hospital volunteers who are not up to date on their vaccines and who cannot access boosters in their own country will be required to receive the booster in Senegal before the first patient comes up the gangway in February. However, there will not be Bivalent boosters due to unavailability in Senegal. If a Bivalent booster becomes available, all hospital crew will be expected to receive this version.

Will I have to wear a facemask?

It depends. Crew do not have to wear facemasks unless inside the hospital or when patient-facing. N95 masks are always provided and required in the hospital. However, masking rules are contingent on COVID-19 caseload levels on board. When masking is in force, N95s will be supplied and are required for all adults, medical or non-medical. Surgical or cloth masks are not accepted.

Can I get off the ship for fun?

Shore leave is unrestricted, but this could change should COVID cases surge. We recommend wearing masks when on crowded public transport or in private taxis.

How much interaction is there with the local population while in Senegal?

  • Day Crew – Mercy Ships typically employs roughly 200 local professionals to come alongside us while in field service, doing many different things – translation, cooking, transportation – you name it. We couldn’t do what we do without these dedicated “Day Crew”. The Day Crew will be performing their typical key functions and will be managed by each team as usual. There will be intermittent COVID-19 testing for our Day Crew. Any Day Crew that may contract COVID-19 will be quarantined in their homes until a negative COVID-19 test can be presented. Any crew found in subsequent contact tracing will also be informed and tested.
  • Patient visitations – Access to the hospital wards and our HOPE Center is likely to be restricted to official business in these areas but will be adjusted based on the changing COVID-19 situation and the level of crew vaccination.

How will Mercy Ships be monitoring COVID-19 cases on board?

Tests are administered upon a volunteer’s arrival, intermittently and as needed for surveillance testing. Any testing needed before departure is the responsibility of the crewmember. Mercy Ships will supply a list of local service providers if needed.

What happens if I get COVID while on board, and where would I be treated?

Any COVID-positive crew will be placed in a designated quarantine cabin for a minimum of five days and will be monitored by our crew clinic team. Mercy Ships will safely supply meals and other accommodations as needed. If someone develops an infection requiring hospitalization, we plan to treat our crew unless their condition requires care that would be better served in a local institution. We are confident in the capacity and level of care of the facilities in Spain and Senegal should they be needed.

Those identified as close contacts to the COVID-positive crew be tested, but will not be isolated, except families.

What COVID-related expenses does Mercy Ships cover for volunteers?

Mercy Ships covers:

  • Quarantine expenses
  • Any testing expenses incurred once on board

Mercy Ships does not cover:

  • Post-service quarantine expenses*
  • Vaccination expenses

  *Mercy Ships will not cover those costs, however, there may be support available from the local Mercy Ships offices to cover these expenses for citizens & residents from their countries.

Those identified as close contacts to the COVID-positive crew be tested, but will not be isolated, except families.

I have had COVID previously and have natural immunity. Do I still need to be vaccinated/boosted per this policy?

The virus’s infectivity has changed significantly since the pandemic began. Prior infection is no longer considered the equivalent of a vaccine or booster dose.

Does the Evacuation and Repatriation (E&R) insurance provided by Mercy Ships cover me if I am sick with COVID?

All crew are automatically enrolled in an evacuation and repatriation insurance policy through Talent Trust. Coverage for evacuation or repatriation due to COVID is included and covered in this policy. However, medical E&R is still subject to the governing travel regulations for any given country – meaning a COVID-positive patient can only be evacuated to a country that allows entry to COVID-positive travelers.

Vaccines have risk, too.

Yes, vaccines have a very small risk of side effects, which are widely publicized. That risk is far lower for vaccines than for getting COVID. For example, the most serious side effects from the vaccine are at least eleven times higher from getting COVID than they are from the vaccine.

Any side effects will be handled in the same way we handle all medical issues among the crew, primarily through the crew clinic. On the off chance that such a side effect happens, we will treat crew through the usual pathways for crew treatment, through the crew clinic. The risk of serious, life-threatening, medevac-requiring side effects is vanishingly rare, and will be handled with medevac as other life-threatening crew issues are. For more information on medical evacuation, please see the Volunteer Guidebook.

Why are the Mercy Ships COVID-19 requirements different than in my home country?

The countries we partner with often have fragile healthcare systems where there is often less preparedness for shocks – such as pandemics – and much less access to emergent and ongoing healthcare support than in higher resource settings.

Are patients required to be vaccinated before receiving treatment?

We take a strong stance that patients receive their surgeries for free. We do not require patients to pay for their care or to meet any other requirements to receive their surgeries. Vaccination falls squarely into this. We ask our patients about and offer vaccinations, but we do not require them to receive our help.

Can Mercy Ships supply an alternative for me if I don’t want to take another injection, like an option to test every day, etc.?

There will be no alternative measures at this time. As always, we will review this regularly.

Can I request an exception?

Exemptions are not automatically granted and are considered on a case-by-case basis. If you need to request an exemption due to medical contraindications to vaccination or for personal beliefs, please click here for detailed instructions.

  • Volunteers who have contraindications to vaccination(s) due to underlying medical conditions should note that those medical conditions may be disqualifying for service in a field service.
  • All requests are reviewed by the International Chief Medical Officer, and additional reviewers may include the Crew Health Physician and/or Chief People Officer.

How often does Mercy Ships review COVID protocols to keep crew and patients safe?

Mercy Ships leadership reviews the protocols, regulations, and guidelines every day. We stay on top of any changes – be it infection rates, international travel issues, guidance from WHO and other trusted organizations, and closer to “home” – monitoring crew life on board! We weigh each decision and change carefully. Our commitment to keeping our crew and patients safe and healthy is the driving force of all decisions.

Some incoming volunteers may need to receive COVID vaccine boosters in Senegal if the booster is not available in their home country. What effect will that have on the country’s vaccine supply?

At maximum, we have a crew of 600. In October 2021, Covax provided 300,000 vaccine doses to Senegal, and in April, an additional 100,000 more doses were provided. Even if our entire crew received vaccines through a Senegalese clinic (which will not happen because most will be vaccinated at home), and even if only those doses were available, that would be less than 0.2% of just those two deliveries alone. All COVID-related plans are translated and shared with the government of Senegal.

Where can I read more about the specific protocols Mercy Ships has developed to protect crew and patients from COVID-19?

After volunteers have received their official offer letters to join, they will be granted access to Navigator, our organizational intranet. Detailed policies, protocols, guidelines, and other information can be found there. Additionally, all volunteers must sign a COVID Acknowledgment Form to confirm they understand the protocols, regulations, testing requirements, and risks associated with volunteering during this season.

If you have further questions after reviewing this FAQ about these COVID regulations, please send an email to [email protected]