As the close contacts of Sunday’s Covid-19 community case have been quickly ring-fenced, attention has turned to a ship quarantined off the coast of Napier with 21 contacts on board, Marc Daalder reports

All 21 members of the crew of a ship quarantined off the coast of Napier are considered close contacts of Sunday’s community case of Covid-19.

While the case’s household and other contacts have been quickly identified and tested, port authorities in Napier are refusing to allow the Ken Rei to dock for testing and care. The port is embroiled in discussions with public health officials and the owners of the ship about next steps for the crew, who might sail on to Auckland or be visited offshore by health officials.

Current Covid-19 policy requires all close contacts of cases to self-isolate for 14 days and be tested twice – once near the start of their isolation and once near the end. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told reporters on Monday that he believed the crew on the ship were taking precautions to remain isolated from one another.

Sunday’s case is a marine electronics engineer who boarded the Ken Rei while it was in New Plymouth to conduct maintenance work. The Ken Rei is based only in New Zealand and its crew are all New Zealanders.

The three options being considered for the crew of the Ken Rei are to sail on to Auckland, where public health officials would then take charge, to disembark in Napier or to send health officials out to the ship by helicopter or another vessel. Bloomfield said he had no preference for which would be carried out and that it was up to the owners of the ship – who are based overseas – to sort out with the Auckland and Hawkes Bay Public Health Units and the Napier port authorities.

“Those discussions are happening. In the meantime, they’re all effectively on quarantine on the ship and are receiving daily symptom checks.”

No one on the ship has displayed any symptoms yet.

The situation, with potentially infected people cooped up on a quarantined ship, is reminiscent of outbreaks on cruise ships in the early stages of the pandemic.

Bloomfield acknowledged it was urgent that the crew members be tested and that avenues be opened up to transport them for medical care, if necessary.

However, he said the risk that anyone on the ship was infected was low, because the engineer was not symptomatic while he was on-board and both the engineer and the crew were wearing PPE.

Officials were also working through the possibility of quarantining infected crew on the ship instead of in a quarantine facility on land.

“I think one of the challenges would be, if they were being quarantined on the ship, as we have seen early in this pandemic with cruise ships is the nature of quite close and confined quarters on board ships means it can be quite difficult to keep crew members isolated from each other. But that’s something we would work through with the ship, if it became an issue, to do what was best for ensuring and protecting the health of all crew members,” Bloomfield said.

Sequencing of the virus genome of the engineer case has found it is a variant not yet found in New Zealand – it is certainly not linked to Auckland’s August outbreak. Bloomfield said no close matches were found when the variant was compared to a database of genomes from overseas, indicating it may have come from a country which has done less sequencing.

One possible avenue of infection is a ship that the engineer worked on which plies a route between Pacific island countries like the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, as well as Brisbane and New Zealand. Eight crew members for this ship were flown into New Zealand from the Philippines and boarded the ship on one of the days the engineer worked on it.

The ship has since left New Zealand, stopped at Noumea, and is now on its way to Brisbane. Bloomfield said officials were in contact with their Australian counterparts to see about having the crew tested on arrival.

Also on Monday, an unrelated case was identified in a crew member of an overseas ship docked at the Port of Tauranga. The initial testing indicated the person had a low viral load, meaning they were likely infected a long time ago and were no longer contagious. The ship in question arrived in New Zealand on October 15, far too late to have been involved in the infection of the Auckland engineer.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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