‘Worse than Melbourne’: Virus ship hell
Emergency plans to evacuate crew members on board a ship anchored off the WA coast that has infected almost all of its crew are being considered, amid official concerns it could be a ticking time bomb for the community and the "engine room" of Australia's economy.
WA recorded more new coronavirus infections on Monday than Victoria - the first time a state has since June 6 - after months of soaring numbers which crippled the southern state.
A further eight new cases of COVID-19 have been identified among Filipino crew members on the Patricia Oldendorff cargo ship, Western Australia's health department confirmed on Monday afternoon.
The bulk carrier was set to collect a shipment of manganese ore in WA's north but some of the 21 crew members reported they were suffering respiratory illness. The ship arrived in Australian waters from Manila last week and is now becoming a growing concern for authorities.
"If it gets out into the community it will create a disaster, worse than what we've seen in Melbourne," WA Health Minister Roger Cook said.
With the concerning numbers, West Australia is doing all it can to contain the virus, with Mr Cook confirming a "temporary fence" has been set up around a hotel to ensure those in quarantine stay grounded.
Private security personnel had been flown in from Perth to maintain a strict quarantine and ten Australian Defence Force members will also arrive to help on Thursday.
All eight new cases on Monday are in hotel quarantine, bringing the total number of infections associated with the ship, which is anchored off Port Hedland off WA's Pilbara coast, to 17 cases.
That takes the total number in hotel quarantine to ten, while the other seven remaining aboard as part of the "essential" crew.
Another four crew on board have tested negative so far but will be tested again to see if they have already contracted the virus.
"The four remaining crew have, at this stage, tested negative," the Department of Health said on Monday.
Mr Cook said authorities were trying to work out how to bring the remaining crew ashore while avoiding creating a "dead ship" - maritime terminology for an empty vessel.
The ABC's Casey Briggs pointed out WA's new infections mean it's the first day since June 6 that another state has reported more infections than Victoria (which on Monday recorded just five).
The late results were not included in Western Australia's Monday tally and will be reflected in Tuesday's numbers.
AMA president Omar Khorshid issued a severe warning that the outbreak could prove to be a "death sentence" if not managed correctly.
"We know that form the first round of (COVID) the government was concerned about protecting our Indigenous communities," he told the West Australian.
"If the virus gets out into the Port Hedland community, particularly into the Indigenous community in Port Hedland, we would expect a catastrophic outcome that would be worse than what we have seen in Melbourne with severe illness and death resulting in an outbreak."
"It is therefore critical that our quarantine arrangements are very tight.
Dr Tudor Codrenau of WA Health told Nine News the cluster was "not unexpected, and we carry on doing what we have been doing."
"This virus has that consciousness that it tries to find every single crack into our defences to get in."
FEARS FOR 'ENGINE ROOM' OF AUSSIE ECONOMY
With Victoria's second lockdown only beginning to ease, fears of a bungled quarantine allowing the virus to run rife are high in the community.
An editorial in the West Australian on Tuesday warned of the dangers for the nation if quarantine was botched.
"Not only is the health of the local community, especially the Indigenous population, under threat but an outbreak in the Pilbara could bring a halt to the engine room of the WA economy," it said.
"The Victorian experience has made it painfully clear that no expense can be spared and no quarantine program can be deemed too overzealous when it comes to trying to control this insidious disease."
Despite the age of the crew ranging between 28 to 57 and being described as "young, fit people", Mr Cook has discussed the option of bringing a new international crew on-board to take over the operation of the ship. That crew is currently undergoing quarantine in Perth.
Nine News journalist Jacquelin Robson said the evacuation operation was "a work in progress".
"It is our understanding that at this stage none of them are unwell, as in suffering chronic conditions," Mr Cook said.
Mr Cook explained officials have been checking up on the crew and that is was a "real focus for us". He said a private security firm had also been hired to maintain a watch on the ship.
"We obviously want to get them off as soon as possible.
"It's not ideal to have them there, although I stress that at this stage they are very, either non-symptomatic, or they are (have) very few symptoms.
"The situation is not ideal but obviously people can deteriorate quickly under COVID-19," he said.
"We have all the positive cases well and truly locked down in that hotel facility. They can't leave their rooms, food and other provisions are brought to them as required."
Media statement: COVID-19 update – 28 September 2020 –Patricia Oldendorff vessel https://t.co/T3OULlJs1I— WA Health (@WAHealth) September 28, 2020
Lunch and a temperature check is served at Port Hedland’s hotel quarantine, test results for 10 crewman from the virus stricken Patricia Oldendorff have been delayed... evac opp for the 9 on board the vessel is still a work in progress @9NewsPerth pic.twitter.com/t64VaNtWBZ— Jacquelin (@jacquelinrobson) September 28, 2020
Port Headland is a critical dock for managing the shipment of Australian resources and Australia's busiest for iron ore, with officials anxious to lock the virus down.
"This is literally the engine room of the nation's economy," Mr Cook told the ABC.
"Millions upon millions of tonnes of iron ore pass through this port as well as other important resources so this is a real focus for the WA government."
Port Hedland Commissioner Fred Riebeling told local media Port Hedland produces "$300 million dollars every day for the Australian economy."
"$300 million it is a staggeringly large amount of money. And if that stops, if the virus gets out into the Hedland community, you think that that whole industry would be at risk, and we just cannot let that happen," he said.
Mr Riebeling described the ship as a "devil's island" where the virus would be difficult to contain.
The department said the Patricia Oldendorff was being cleaned daily, all crew members were in good spirits, had been able to contact family at home and had been provided access to culturally appropriate food by a Filipino chef.
"The Department of Health, together with the WA Country Health Service, would like to reassure the Port Hedland community that every safety measure is being put in place to protect the local community.
"Planning continues with the vessel operator, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Pilbara Ports Authority regarding the safety of the vessel and potential replacement crew - if required."
- with Natalie Brown
Originally published as 'Worse than Melbourne': Virus ship hell