Concerns in Australia Over COVID-19 Incidents as Bulk Carrier Sails

concerns in Australia after bulk carrier departs with COVID-19 positive crew
File photo of bulk carrier departing Port Hedland

Published Oct 14, 2020 8:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australia authorities reported that the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines bulk carrier Vega Dream has been permitted to sail from its anchorage off Port Hedland despite crew members being in isolation aboard the vessel after testing positive for COVID-19. The vessel is believed to be sailing to the Philippines.

Before the ship’s departure, the Western Australian Department of Health offered humanitarian assistance to the COVID-19 positive crew. They were told that medical intervention was not required and the offer of assistance was declined. 

The Department’s public health experts also provided advice to the vessel around infection prevention and control. The shipping agent was also offered access to the Department’s vessel deep-cleaning plans which they reported had been employed successfully on the cruise ship Artania and livestock carrier Al Kuwait, both of which had COVID-19 outbreaks earlier in the year in Perth, as well as being used with the Patricia Oldendorff, another bulk carrier that had also had a recent outbreak of COVID-19 among its crew while at Port Hedland.

The outbreak on the Vega Dream was identified when a crew member was taken ashore for medical treatment overnight on October 10. The vessel had a crew of 20 aboard and later testing identified six additional crew members as positive. Those crew members were placed in isolation aboard the vessel and reported not to need medical attention.

The Vega Dream was fully loaded with her cargo of ore and ordered to leave the dock for an anchorage offshore. Australian Maritime Safety Authority gave clearance for the vessel to depart on October 14 and it is currently projected to arrive in the Philippines on October 21.

When the first case of the virus was identified, the Western Australia authorities implemented their emergency plan but they later issued assurances that there had been no exposure and it believed there was minimal risk. The pilot who had been aboard the vessel, however, was in quarantine they said purely as a precaution. Questions were later raised if the crew had in fact been on the dock and interacting with shore side personnel during the time it was loading in Port Hedland. The vessel was operating under charter to the Australian mining company BHP.

After the vessel moved out to the anchorage it was no longer under the authority of Western Australia, but remained within the jurisdiction of the federal government. As a result, the Western Australia health minister Roger Cook spoke out on the local media calling on the federal government to take additional action both to safeguard the seafarers and the citizens of the state. He said that seafarers were already working under difficult conditions and questioned if appropriate safeguards were being taken.

The concerns in Western Australia were raised because the Vega Dream was the second vessel in a matter of days to have an outbreak of the virus among its crew. Another bulker, the Patricia Oldendorff has a more widespread outbreak where most of the vessel’s crew were quarantined onshore. That vessel was cleared to depart Australia at the same time the incident surfaced on the Vega Dream. Because both vessels had crew members from the Philippines and had recently carried out crew changes in the Philippines, the Western Australia health authorities called on both the Philippines and Australia’s federal government to take more action to ensure that crew members infected with the virus were not arriving in its ports. The health minister also called on the mining companies that were employing the vessel or working with the ship owners to take additional steps for the welfare of the ships’ crew as well as the miners and employees in the port managing the loading of the vessels.

Australian media raised the fear that since most restrictions and precautions have been removed on the community in Western Australia, the introduction of the virus from one of the ship could possibly spread rapidly through the community with significant consequences. The federal government said it was working to ensure that proper precautions were being enacted including steps in the Philippines to identify seafarers with the vius before boarding ships bound for Australia.