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Australia A coronavirus cruise ship was about to dock in a bushfire-ravaged community until local doctors intervened

23:16  29 march  2020
23:16  29 march  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a large ship in the water: The Voyager of the Seas had a number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, including one passenger who died. (Source: Voyager of the Seas Facebook) © Provided by ABC NEWS The Voyager of the Seas had a number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, including one passenger who died. (Source: Voyager of the Seas Facebook) A group of 40 medical practitioners from a bushfire-affected community warned NSW Health of the potential risks of arriving cruise ships, just days before four separate vessels were allowed to dock in Sydney.

7.30 can reveal that the bushfire-affected Bega Valley narrowly averted a potential health crisis after a plan to divert several cruise ships to the port of Eden to disembark passengers in the days following the Federal Government's cruise ship ban was abandoned.

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One of those vessels, the Voyager of the Seas, was due to arrive at the port on 15 March.

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It has since had several confirmed COVID-19 cases after it left passengers in Sydney on March 18. One of those who tested positive, Garry Kirstenfield, died on Wednesday last week.

But a local campaign saw medical practitioners, including GPs, anaesthetists, ICU doctors and respiratory physicians, unite to warn state authorities about the risks they believed passenger cruises presented to the regional NSW community, which was hit hard by bushfires over the summer.

A copy of the letter, seen by the ABC, sent to NSW Health on 13 March said that the arrival of the cruise vessels would "put not only our community, but our front-line health workers at unnecessary increased risk. Our local hospital is not equipped to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19 of this scale".

'This posed a risk to our community'

Jaclyn Brown, a GP in Merimbula, sent the letter to NSW Health.

"We have one district hospital which has a handful of anaesthetists, a handful of ventilators and it's not equipped to deal with a mass outbreak," she said.

"I think we had a near-miss situation, that we were able to foresee that this posed a risk to our community. I still feel sick to my stomach that we transferred the problem to Sydney."

The vessel was eventually diverted back to Sydney. It is unclear whether this was due to any directive from NSW Health.

NSW Health has continued to state that all four of the passenger cruise vessels that recently disembarked passengers in Sydney were deemed "low risk".

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"I don't want to lay blame on anyone. And I think now is not the time and there will be a time for us to investigate how this decision was made," Dr Brown said.

"But I think the really important thing is that we support each other to make decisions and that we're open and transparent moving forward."

'We should never have left port'

Heidi Watson, a Sydney-based teacher, was one of the passengers onboard the Voyager of the Seas.

"I was incredulous. I couldn't believe we were going to Eden," she said.

When the vessel was diverted back to Sydney, she said she was alarmed that passengers were allowed to leave quickly and without any border or health checks.

"There was no checking. We had our passports out, no-one wanted to see our passports," she said.

"We didn't have temperatures checked."

She questioned why the cruise was allowed to depart, given the increasing risks around COVID-19.

"I don't think we should have been allowed to sail," she said.

"We should never have left port given the conditions at the time."

A spokesman from the Australian Border Force said: "The ABF continues to encourage all passengers to adhere to social distancing guidelines while disembarking and clearing customs and immigration."

'A life lost that quick'

Mr Kirstenfield, who was a passenger onboard the Voyager of the Seas, died last week after contracting COVID-19.

Karina Rogers was another passenger onboard the Voyager of the Seas. She and her daughter dined with Mr Kirstenfield and his family every night on the cruise.

"We saw them every day and just had great conversations with them," Ms Rogers said.

"Garry was funny. He always had something to say, always smiling, really just had a lot of personality.

"It's crazy to think that's a life lost that quick."

Ms Rogers developed flu-like symptoms after she returned home, and on Monday this week also tested positive for the coronavirus.

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"When I found out I was positive, I was in disbelief," she said.

"It was a big shock."

Disembarked passengers spread across the country

The Ruby Princess cruise vessel that docked in Sydney on March 19 has now had 162 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the passengers on board.

They are now spread out across the country after they disembarked, including places like Toowoomba, Wollongong, Port Augusta, Darwin and Melbourne.

Efforts are still underway to contact some of the passengers onboard the vessel.

In an interview last week, NSW Health director of communicable diseases Vicky Sheppeard said authorities had successfully contacted "at least 99 percent" of the people on board.

But she acknowledged that a successful contact was initially considered to be where an email was successfully sent.

"So the initial process was an email that didn't bounce back," Dr Sheppeard said.

"That was the initial measure to get information out to 3,000 people very quickly. And that is now being reinforced by individual contact."

As of Friday, 19 passengers on board the Ruby Princess had still not been successfully contacted by NSW Health.

Who is responsible?

The arrival of the cruise vessels has driven intense scrutiny of the federal and state government agencies that have oversight of border and health controls at Sydney's port.

NSW Health has acknowledged it had responsibility for the health of the disembarking passengers. It has also said it has now changed its approach to ensure that any vessels with passengers that present with acute respiratory conditions on board will be tested for COVID-19 before passengers can disembark.

On Friday, Princess Cruise chief executive Stuart Allison said that the company had reported all medical cases to Australian government agencies.

"Our onboard team had taken no chances. They required guests who had reported flu-like symptoms to self-isolate in their cabins," he said in a video statement.

"The ship then reported these cases to federal and state authorities as we're always obliged to do."

NSW Health did not respond to questions, but a spokesman from the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said: "The NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller and his executive team are currently engaged in operational planning with Australian Border Force relating to the management of shipping in NSW."

"Further details will be provided once they are available."

"NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard is signing an order that will mean no one can leave these cruise ships, including Australian citizens, without the permission of the NSW Police Commissioner."

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Coronavirus: France accepts Cuban doctors in its overseas departments .
© Yamil LAGE / AFP Cuban doctors pose in front of the portrait of Fidel Castro before their departure for Italy, March 21, 2020. (Illustration) . The French government, which faces the crisis management of the Covid-19, has finally accepted by decree the sending of Cuban doctors to its overseas departments. A welcome reinforcement for West Indian doctors to fight against the new coronavirus but especially to fill the French medical deserts.

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