WA warning on future COVID ship outbreaks

The risk of more COVID-19 outbreaks looms when ship crews are eventually granted long-overdue changeovers, Western Australia’s government warns.

WA authorities have scrambled to contain an outbreak of 17 cases on the Patricia Oldendorff bulk carrier anchored off the Port Hedland coast.

No new cases were reported on Wednesday but nine people remain on the ship as essential crew, seven of whom have tested positive.

There are also a dozen crew members in quarantine at the fenced-off Hedland Hotel and 10 of them have tested positive.

None are seriously unwell.

WA’s government will investigate what testing protocols were in place when the ship departed the Philippines and may seek costs from the vessel operator.

Major ports such as Port Hedland have been largely insulated from potential risks because crews have stayed on vessels.

But Ports Minister Alannah MacTiernan says that can’t remain the case forever.

“Quite clearly there is a major issue looming as we are now moving into the eighth or ninth month of the COVID pandemic,” she said.

“In many cases you’ll find that crews are now coming up to 12 months at sea.

“So I think there’s going to have to be a lot of examination and international co-operation as to how we deal with this.”

The Patricia Oldendorff, carrying 20 Filipino nationals and the captain, is anchored eight nautical miles off WA’s northwest coast.

It arrived from Manila on September 16.

Ms MacTiernan said it was believed some of the crew had been allowed to quarantine at home rather than in a hotel before the vessel departed, adding she would ask the federal officials to raise it with their Filipino counterparts.

Health Minister Roger Cook will attend a community forum for concerned Port Hedland residents later on Wednesday.

He is confident the infected crew will fully recover and the ship will depart by October 10 at the latest.

Australian Defence Force personnel will arrive on Thursday to help police and security guards oversee the hotel quarantine.

Nine crew are needed to maintain the ship while it is anchored, and maritime laws require 13 people to be aboard when it departs for international waters.

Chief health officer Andy Robertson, meanwhile, said the easing of some restrictions for people from Victoria and NSW was a positive sign.

From next Monday, Victorian arrivals – who remain subject to tight exemption criteria – will be allowed to self-isolate rather than entering hotel quarantine at their own expense.

NSW residents will no longer be subject to tighter exemption criteria than those from other states.

“I think yesterday was a step towards easing some of the pressures on the border,” Dr Robertson said.

“But we obviously continue to look very closely at what happens in Victoria, NSW, Queensland. If they continue to improve – and we’re now getting good figures out of (those states) – then we will continue to look at options going forward.”

WA has 22 active cases, including five unrelated to the Patricia Oldendorff.

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