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A massive cruise ship carrying some 800 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus docked in downtown Sydney on Saturday, triggering memories of a deadly ship-related outbreak in Australia’s largest city in the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic.
The Majestic Princess, which returned from New Zealand, is carrying more than 4,000 people, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC). Princess Cruises, the cruise line, said in a statement that all guests onboard took a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of disembarking and that passengers who had tested positive would exit separately and not take public transport. Australia no longer requires people who have tested positive for the virus to isolate, though local authorities have issued guidance that covid patients onboard ships should isolate for 5 days after testing positive.
“Our onboard medical team will continue to support guests until they disembark,” Princess Cruises said. It did not respond to a question on whether customers who had tested positive could isolate onboard until they recovered, though the company said it would help guests access accommodation for isolation. Majestic Princess was scheduled to soon sail to Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.
The health department of New South Wales, the state in which Sydney is located, said in a separate statement that patients had been isolating onboard. State authorities said that there was a “Tier 3” covid risk level aboard the Majestic Princess, indicating a “high level of transmission.”
Cruise ships have been a potent incubator for the coronavirus. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitored such ships for transmission at sea for about two years; it also warned against cruise travel amid the omicron spike during last year’s holiday season. The CDC still recommends getting vaccinated and taking a coronavirus test before boarding a cruise ship.
In early 2020, Carnival Cruises’ Ruby Princess allowed thousands of passengers to disembark in Sydney, placing the cruise ship at the center of one of Australia’s largest covid outbreaks. At least 28 people died and 700 cases were linked to the ship, according to the ABC. Another Carnival ship, the Diamond Princess, also logged 12 Covid-related fatalities earlier that year, including the first Australian national to die of the virus.
But the country has since lifted coronavirus restrictions on international travel: Proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test are no longer required for entry, and mask-wearing on international flights is encouraged but not mandatory, according to Australia’s Department of Health and Aged Care.
The absence of restrictions is a far cry from how Australia first handled the pandemic. Sydney, the commercial capital, enacted a 106-day lockdown in 2021, while Melbourne endured the world’s longest stay-at-home lockdown. Australia also closed its borders to nearly all international travelers for nearly two years, reopening in February. It deported tennis ace Novak Djokovic for not being vaccinated, preventing him from competing in this year’s Australian Open. The country has one of the lowest covid death rates in the Western world.
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Australia’s reopening came after it achieved one of the world’s highest immunization rates. As of Nov. 9, nearly 96 percent of residents older than 16 have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine. The country of 25.7 million people reported a seven-day rolling average of 12 deaths on Friday, or about half that of a month ago.
But New South Wales authorities said this week that the state had entered a new wave of the pandemic, and some medical experts fear that the upcoming holiday season will trigger a spike in infections that could challenge the hospital system in a country that has removed virtually all curbs on the virus.
“If the major public hospitals on the east coast aren’t overwhelmed with patients and facing staff shortages over the holiday break – I’ll donate $1000 to charity,” tweeted physician Steve Robson, president of the Australian Medical Association, in response to news of infections on board the Majestic Princess. (Most of Australia’s population lives on its east coast.)
Katerina Ang contributed to this report.