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Coral Princess COVID-19 outbreak may foreshadow what happens on land in coming weeks

NSW Health is closely monitoring the Coral Princess cruise ship which is stopping in Sydney today amid a COVID-19 outbreak on board, mostly among crew members.

The COVID-19 outbreak on a sister ship to the Ruby Princess was inevitable, according to experts who have warned prospective travellers to get used to infections on ships.

Key points:
  • The cruise liner will visit Sydney today but most crew members will not be allowed to disembark
  • An expert in infectious diseases says the outbreak will be a drop in the ocean compared to wider community transmission
  • A passenger isolating on the Coral Princess said Carnival Cruises was handling the outbreak well

The Coral Princess, a Princess cruise liner, is battling a COVID-19 outbreak of 118 people — 114 crew and four passengers.

NSW Health said it was likely the passengers acquired the virus prior to boarding, and all infected travellers and crew were now isolating.

The resort-style ship is scheduled to dock in Sydney's Circular Quay today as part of a 12-day voyage along the east coast.

Despite the strict COVID protocols now enforced on cruises, the virus is still too hard to stop in such settings, says professor of infectious diseases Peter White.

"SARS-CoV-2 is probably the major risk to cruises now … I think we're going to see more of these [outbreaks] unfortunately," Professor White, from the University of NSW, told the ABC.

He said coronavirus would become the new norovirus of cruise ships.

Norovirus is a type of virus that causes gastroenteritis and can spread easily in close quarters, including on cruise ships.

"Around one in 20 cruises would have a norovirus outbreak on them [before the pandemic] but we know that SARS-CoV-2 is probably more transmissible and infectious," he said.

"The inevitable has happened and we've had an outbreak."

Peter WhitePeter White
Peter White says there may need to be more focus on preventing transmission among crew members.(Supplied: University of NSW)

The Coral Princess is in the same family as the Ruby Princess cruise liner which was responsible for Australia's first COVID super-spreader event in March 2020.

However, it is likely this outbreak, which is mostly contained to the crew, will be a drop in the ocean in relation to wider community transmission.

NSW is expecting a COVID-19 peak in the coming weeks as the new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 circulate widely.

Professor White said the Coral Princess outbreak was simply foreshadowing what would be seen on land soon.

"We often consider a cruise ship as sentinel surveillance because we start seeing the outbreaks first on the ships," he said.

"That would be playing on my mind if I was going on a cruise and I might try to delay until there's not a wave of outbreaks set to roll in."

NSW Health has assessed the risk level for the Coral Princess outbreak as "amber", which is the second-highest level.

Carnival Australia, which owns Princess Cruises, says the ship is managing "quite well" in the circumstances but there will be some service impacts due to the number of staff isolating.

When the ship stops in Sydney today NSW Health says the crew will not be allowed to get off, and passengers will have to take a rapid antigen test (RAT) before disembarking.

There will be a small changeover of crew members but those disembarking must test negative on a RAT.

Professor White said this outbreak was "particularly interesting" because the virus was most prevalent in the crew.

"I think there is a warning here that extra precautions for crew-based outbreaks … are something the cruise companies should focus on," he said.

Glenn DillonGlenn Dillon
Glenn and Caroline Dillon are now isolating in their cabin.(Supplied: Facebook)

Glenn Dillon, who is on board the ship with his wife Caroline, said Carnival had handled the infections appropriately.

Ms Dillon tested negative on a RAT before embarking but developed symptoms after her first night on board. She then tested positive on a PCR.

"I think they are handling it as well as they can," Mr Dillon said.

"I think the buffet being open is the one thing I would criticise.

"First evening in the public dining, we were self-service and it was very, very packed.

"But other than that, all the crew is masked up.

"It's been quite a positive experience while I've been out [of isolation]."

Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said infection control on cruises was "very adequate" but outbreaks were "inevitable".

A spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association said ships operating in Australia had the most comprehensive COVID-19 measures anywhere in the travel industry.

All passengers and crew must be vaccinated and test negative before they embark, sanitation regimes have been enhanced, and airflow and filtration have been increased. 

Royal Caribbean cruises will return to Australia in October.

Vice-president and managing director Gavin Smith said the company was currently working with health authorities to finalise its COVID-19 protocols

He said passenger demand was growing.

"Web traffic is exceeding 2019 levels and enquiries on sailings have been significantly increasing," Mr Smith said.

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