Filipino crew tested COVID-19 positive on bulk carrier off Australia’s Pilbara

The Al Kuwait livestock ship was able to leave Western Australia, after all crew were cleared of COVID-19 in June 2020. Credit: Paul Kane/Getty Images

All but four of the 21 Filipino crew on the Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Patricia Oldendorff off Port Hedland, Australia, have tested positive for COVID-19, state health authorities reported.

The vessel arrived in Australian waters on 16 September but remained at anchor 15 km off the coast, in the Timor Sea, after the master reported two seafarers were suffering flu-like symptoms. Two nurses wearing full protective equipment boarded the vessel by helicopter to test the crew, with two testing positive.

All except a skeleton crew were transferred to a quarantine facility over the weekend. Separation zones and deep cleaning were set up on board.

Subsequently, on 26 September, seven other crew were tested positive for the virus, and on 28 September, the total infected cases have reached seventeen.

However, none of them require hospitalisation, being either asymptomatic or suffering only mild symptoms.

“We’ve had an additional eight testing positive today,” a state health spokesperson told SAS. “So that means that out of 12 in hotel quarantine only 2 are not positive; and of the 9 on the vessel only 2 are not positive.”

Crew have been in contact with their families and a local Filipino chef has been brought in to provide meals.

“All measures are in place to keep the crew healthy and to maintain the vessel providing them with the health support they require,” said Dr Tudor Codreanu, mission lead of the Western Australian Medical Assistance Team.

“We are in direct contact with them individually at least once a day,” he said. “At the moment they are happy and grateful.”

Port Hedland has a large Filipino community. Chona Pawloff, president of the Hedland Filipino Australian Society and presenter of the Northwest Filipino Radio Show, together with her daughter Karla, is arranging to play the seafarers’ pop songs over the internet.

“Filipinos are very sentimental people,” she said. “They love music. Most Filipinos sing. That’s their way of keeping in touch with themselves, other people, and their families.”

She said the local community felt sad that the seafarers were isolated and really wanted to reach out and help.

“But of course we can’t,” she told ABC Radio. “We have a website they can click on. It will be a COVID-19-free interaction.”

Concerns now turn to finding a replacement crew, with three extra seafarers in Port Hedland and two in Perth available. This is still two short of safe manning.

Four crew who tested negative for the virus have undergone some testing to see if they have had the infection in the past or any immunity.

“If the serology test is positive it’s actually reassuring for us that we have able seamen there that can maintain the safety and security of the vessel.”

Dr Codreanu was also in charge of the Medical Assistance Team working on the Artania cruise ship and Al Kuwait live export carrier during the COVID-19 outbreaks. A 42-year-old Filipino seafarer from the Artania cruise ship has died from the virus.

“This virus tries to find every single crack in our system,” said Dr Codreanu. “But we are in a better position now than we were before. We know much more and we are much better prepared.”