Taranaki DHB feared for Covid-19 infected mariners' lives - OIA

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Official emails reveal the Taranaki District Health Board worried crew members could die and a humanitarian crisis unfold on deep-sea fishing vessels with Covid-19 on board which had contact with the region's port.

Viking Bay entering Wellington Harbour to dock at Queens Wharf for quarantine.

By Robin Martin of rnz.co.nz

The Spanish-flagged Viking Bay and the Playa Zahara made national headlines earlier this year.

Infected mariners joined the Viking Bay at Port Taranaki on July 5 after travelling directly from Auckland Airport by van - which was permitted.

The Playa Zahara wanted to come into port later that month to change masters but a respiratory sickness - later identified as Delta - was already running through the crew.

More than 200 pages of emails have been released through the Official Information Act and reveal authorities scrambling to respond to the infected ships.

Infection discovered on the Viking Bay

The Viking Bay cases emerged on July 6 after Counties Manukau DHB clinical microbiologist, Dr Susan Morpeth, alerted the Auckland Regional Public Health Service of a positive test taken the previous day among a ship's crew.

The infected mariner was identified as being on a ship that had already left Port Taranaki.

Nine mariners arrived in total on a Singapore Airlines flight early on July 5 and transferred to New Plymouth in a van with a supplied driver.

Morpeth was aghast: "Oh dear - flew into Auckland? Transferred to Port Taranaki how? Good luck scoping that out Auckland Regional Public Health Service."

Taranaki Medical Officer of Health Dr Jonathan Jarman was quickly brought into the loop.

The DHB was concerned about the mariners wellbeing, but deemed the risk to the public was low. A media blackout was initially agreed with the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Early evening on July 6, Jarman emailed a Taranaki Covid-19 update, and he was worried about the mariners.

"The vessel is now in international waters ... however [there's] concern that [it] will turn into a humanitarian issue with a large number of unwell people and possible death(s). Repeated medivac retrievals of seriously unwell crew from the vessel at sea are considered inappropriate."

He identified a Customs officer and Port Taranaki pilot as close contacts whom the MOH required to isolate for 14 days and be tested immediately.

The next day, Port Taranaki then-chief executive Guy Roper challenged the isolation of its pilot.

"His requirement to isolate has the potential to cause a significant impact on business continuity."

The pilot was only onboard for 35 minutes, observed social distancing and wore PPE, Roper said.

Customs also chimed in - contacting the MOH directly - asking why its officer was being made to isolate.

The MOH relented and the pair were reclassified at casual contacts.

That was all unfolding as Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield announced the Viking Bay was returning to Port Taranaki - unbeknownst to the DHB, the port or the boat's representatives.

A few hours later the port released a statement saying it would not accept the vessel back at New Plymouth.

"We have followed all the Ministry of Health protocols including those for crew transfers, however we believe having the vessel return with known Covid-19 cases aboard is a completely different scenario and puts our staff and the community at a higher risk," Roper said.

Concerns emerge about the Playa Zahara

Compounding issues late on July 7, Jarman emailed Taranaki DHB incident controller Becky Jenkins informing her of problems aboard the Playa Zahara.

"Just to let you know that one of the sister vessels of the Viking Bay has applied for a crew change here at Port Taranaki. The only problem is that 15 of the 18 crew have a flu-like illness."

Meanwhile, National Manager of Seaway Agencies James Dawson, who represented the Viking Bay and Playa Zahara, was feeling miffed.

"It was very frustrating watching events play out in the media. Hopefully the Ministry of Health will take on board for future situations ... that no announcement should be made about the affected vessel calling at a particular port until the management of that port has agreed to accommodate the vessel."

He lobbied for the infected crew to be isolated as soon as practicable so the vessels could return to fishing.

Taranaki DHB tries to bail out

As the Playa Zahara drama unfolded and plans were made to send the Viking Bay to Wellington - instead of Auckland - Jarman emailed the Ministry of Health, attempting to off-load responsibility for the fishing vessels.

"We are very keen that we hand over to the Ministry. There are national precedent setting issues and the ships are in international waters," Jarman wrote on July 8.

He appeared to get a positive response, but by July 11, when Jarman shared with Becky Jenkins plans to bring the Playa Zahara into Port Taranaki, it was clear he was leading the response.

"I thought we had handed over to the MOH in terms of these ships? Is the responsibility back on the Public Health Unit? You seem to be doing all the coordination," Jenkins wrote.

Jarman replied: "This one is our baby unfortunately. I had to do the quarantine notice and this is all new territory."

Jarman checked the Heath Act 1956 and found clause 94: 'Places of Inspection for Ships', and approached Roper about bringing the Playa Zahara crew into Port Taranaki for testing.

"We are looking at asking the vessel to fly the quarantine flag and not granting them pratique (permission to land). However, we would still like to test them at a 'place of inspection'. Do you have a 'place of inspection'?"

Roper said the Playa Zahara could dock at an isolated berth using a remote pilot, but he was worried about what would happen if any of the crew tested positive.

"Port Taranaki has already made a strong stance that the receival of and transfer of Covid-19 infected staff is something we have to consider carefully," Roper said.

If they tested positive, Roper wanted the ship to follow the Viking Bay example and sail to Wellington.

Jarman had already raised the same issue with Customs.

"We do not have MIQ facilities in Taranaki. We have been looking at Community MIQ in Taranaki for New Zealand cases, but I feel this would be inappropriate for overseas mariners for a variety of reasons. I suspect that public opinion will be strongly against this ... the off-signing and transportation of infectious people to a MIQF carries too much public health risk for us. I also doubt Port Taranaki will give consent. "

After waiting offshore for its test results, 16 out of the 18 mariners aboard the Playa Zahara were positive for Covid-19. It departed for MIQ in Lyttelton on July 15.

Meanwhile in Wellington, 15 mariners from the Viking Bay also tested positive.

A view of the port of New Plymouth New Zealand with a container ship docking and one at the dock.

In the last emails, Jarman was clearly unhappy the DHB and Port were left to go it alone.

"I think it would be good to have a debrief when the dust has settle on this one. It is a tricky one. In reality, we organised the 'ship liable to quarantine' process in partnership with Port Taranaki with minimal involvement from Customs and carried out the testing," Jarman wrote.

"I kept Customs in the loop, but they either didn't answer emails or were slow in answering. Initially we were not invited to the all of government meetings about the Playa Zahara and then, when we were, it became clear our input was not required.

"I'm not sure some of these [problems] are solvable."

He was also looking to get some housework done.

"Our nurse testers mentioned to me that many of the crew on the Playa Zahara did some active hoicks (spits) onto the wharf during the testing process.

"I spoke to Guy Roper on the day of the testing and asked if the Port could wash down the area once the ship had departed. He's going to check that this happened."