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Infections by the shipload, and a backpacker, put Queensland on red alert

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All but two of the 21 crew members on a Filipino ship in the Torres Strait, and sailing for Queensland, have been found to have COVID-19, prompting a massive effort to get them to Brisbane hospitals.

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Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young today said she was concerned the threat of COVID-19 was “escalating” in Queensland, as two new incidents demonstrated the potential for the virus to spread in vastly different ways.

On Monday, a bulk carrier from the Philippines, and with Filipino crew, sought a pilot to navigate through the Torres Strait – communities there have been given priority for vaccinations due to the risk of COVID-19 – noting also the level of sickness on board.

Instead of a pilot, nurses were sent to the ship, the MV Sanyu, and found 19 of the 21 crew members had COVID-19. Queensland Health and Maritime Safety Queensland then arranged for the ship to be diverted from its intended course to Weipa, where it will arrive this morning.

Young, who emphasised that none of the crew had left the ship in the Torres Strait, said most would be flown to COVID-19 hospitals in Brisbane. While previous ships’ sick crew members have remained on board, the move is in line with Queensland policy of putting all new cases to hospital, and may suggest they are more serious.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, a man who living in the City Backpackers hostel in Roma Street since leaving hotel quarantine has now tested positive to COVID-19, with genome sequencing yet to confirm whether he had caught it from another traveller while at the Quest Hotel for 14 days.

Young said the Australian man, who had returned from the Philippines, had tested negative on three occasions in hotel quarantine and was able to check out. He has since tested positive – and deemed to have been infectious since July 22.

Masks are not compulsory in hostel accommodation rooms, such as dorms, so contact tracers are now trying to alert guests who Young said “could have gone anywhere in the state”. The hostel and neighbouring Joe’s Place Backpackers are in lockdown.

Young was hopeful the mandate on masks helped protect members of the community and implored people to keep following the rules and check the list of exposure sites.

But she emphasised that quarantine arrangements needed an overhaul – Queensland Health will again try to tighten protocols, while governments discuss other potential facilities – and Queenslanders eligible for vaccinations should seek protection as soon as possible.

“This is our 13th incursion of the virus into the community over the last six weeks so it is becoming increasingly concerning,” Young said.

The pressure on hotel quarantine, and numerous breaches, has prompted Queensland to allow people given exemptions to return from South Australia and Victoria to quarantine at home if their residence is suitable. This is a significant, if subtle, shift in policy.

After rugby league players in a ‘bubble’ arrangement were accused of again breaking the rules, Young yesterday wrote to the National Rugby League to ask why the competition should not be kicked out of Queensland. She was today awaiting their reply.

She has, separately, made Queensland MPs eligible for state-administered vaccines, regardless of age, due to the risk they could spread the virus in their communities.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath urged the Commonwealth to do more to procure vaccines and also fast-track its proposed quarantine centre at Meeandah, which she noted had some “some logistical issues” yet to be resolved. The Commonwealth has refused to support the State’s proposal for a centre connected to Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport.

D’Ath also confirmed the State was looking to manufacture more vaccines locally and said “and we will do everything possible to support that happening in Queensland but that’s not going to help us today and tomorrow”.

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