Second Wave of COVID-19 Reaches Ships in Australia and New Zealand

coronavirus impacting ships in Australia and New Zealand
Port Taranaki became involved when a contractor from Auckland was infected with the virus - file photo Port Taranaki

Published Oct 19, 2020 6:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

The anticipated second wave of the coronavirus is not sparing the maritime industry as both Australia and New Zealand find themselves dealing with cases of the virus aboard ships arriving in their ports. Australia has two ships in Fremantle currently with the virus and this comes after Western Australia had just cleared the second of two ships also with cases of the virus.

Health officials in New Zealand launched a complicated contact tracing effort in the past few days to resolve the origins of the case they are managing. Most cases of the virus in New Zealand are coming into the country from overseas versus community spread and testing on the current situation confirms that this case came into the country from overseas.

The situation began when a marine electronics engineer working as a contractor to ships arriving in New Zealand notified health authorities that he was experiencing symptoms of the virus. Test results on October 16 confirmed this individual as positive starting the tracing program. New Zealand health officials determined the engineer had done contract work on a New Zealand vessel which they doubt is the source of the infection and then in Auckland worked a vessel the Sorana Surville, which has been identified as the likely source of the case.

The engineer worked aboard the Sofrana Surville, a smaller 12,500 DWT container ship able to carry 1,000 TEU, on October 12 and 13 in the port of Auckland. At the same time, eight crew members arrived from the Philippines and four departed the ship after having been aboard since March. The vessel departed Auckland making a stop in Noumea, New Caledonia, before proceeding toward Brisbane, Australia before being identified for investigation. 

After working on that ship, the electrician drove to New Plymouth, New Zealand where he worked on the vessel the Ken Rei, which transports logs in New Zealand. That vessel departed for Napier, New Zealand, where it has now also been detained with its 21 crew all considered as close contacts of the engineer. 

In addition, port workers at Port Taranaki in New Plymouth are being tested for the virus and advised to remain in quarantine until they get their results. So far one port staff member has tested negative. The engineer also spent a night in a hotel in New Plymouth and that room has also been cleaned and hotel employees are being tested as a precaution.

The scope of the contact circle demonstrates the challenge that a single case of the virus is presenting for local authorities. However, in Western Australia, the situation has been contained with those vessels presenting less threat of the spread of the virus. Recently, however, Port Hedland in northern Western Australia had two ships in port with the virus that created concerns of exposure to pilots, port staff, and employees from the mining companies that were loading ore on those two bulkers.

The first of the two new cases began in the past days in the port of Geraldson when a symptomatic crew member aboard a Liberian-flagged 83,375 DWT bulk carrier, the Key Integrity, tested positive for the virus. The crew was isolated aboard the ship, not permitted to go ashore. On October 18, the decision was made to let the vessel sail to Fremantle where the health authorities were prepared to manage the outbreak. The Key Integrity docked in Fremantle, and 19 crew members are currently being tested for the virus. They remain in isolation on the ship awaiting the test results.

At the same time, a crew member from a livestock carrier, the 14,200 DWT Al Messilah, was taken ashore for medical treatment and tested positive for the virus. That crew member, however, was transported on a bus with crew from three other vessels that were also requiring medical attention. The Australian health officials believe the risk of exposure was low, but they are taking precautions with those individuals as well.

The first crew member from the Al Messilah was placed in a quarantine hotel while the remainder of the crew on the livestock carrier are also being tested. On October 19, today, Australian health officials announced that 24 of the 51 remaining crew members aboard the livestock carrier tested positive for the coronavirus. The ship, which had been due to load its cargo and depart for Kuwait, was detained before loading began.

These cases illustrate the challenges the ports are facing and the potential spread of the virus during this second wave. The previous cases in Australia had already raised calls for better enforcement and for countries such as the Philippines where the bulkers came from to tighten their enforcement. The New Zealand Maritime Union called for restricting the ports of entry after the current situation was identified.