Ruby Princess doctor 'surprised' passengers allowed off cruise ship when crew member had high fever

Dr Ilse von Watzdorf tells special commission of inquiry passengers shouldn’t have been let off before results came through of crew member with 39.2C temperature

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  • A crew member on the Ruby Princess had a fever of 39.2C and had tested negative for both influenza A and B when it docked in Sydney, an inquiry into the cruise ship has heard.

    The ship’s senior doctor, Dr Ilse von Watzdorf, said this was a symptom of “potential Covid-19” and she was “surprised” that 2,700 passengers had been allowed to disembark from the virus-hit cruise ship without waiting for coronavirus test results.

    Nationally, more than 600 people have contracted Covid-19 and 21 people have died after travelling on the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which made two trips between Sydney and New Zealand in March. One hundred and seventy-one crew on board the ship, which is still in Australian waters, have also tested positive.

    On Monday, a special commission of inquiry, chaired by barrister Bret Walker SC questioned the ship’s senior doctor, via video link, as she is quarantined on board the ship.

    Von Watzdorf said she would not have allowed passengers off the ship without testing them for Covid-19 and receiving the results.

    “I was surprised that we were allowed to do that without waiting for the results to come through,” she said. “If it was my decision I would’ve perhaps waited like the previous time.”

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    The counsel assisting the special commission, Richard Beasley SC, said the ship filled out a “human health” report on 18 March that said 128 people had become ill in the past 14 days, and 24 had temperatures above 38C.

    The ship’s log also showed that a crew member registered a temperature of 39.2C and was swabbed, but tested negative for both influenza A and B, on 18 March.

    “Does that amount to that crew member showing symptoms of Covid-19?” Walker asked.

    “Yes, those symptoms are potential Covid-19,” Von Watzdorf said.

    Beasley also told the inquiry that Von Watzdorf had denied there was a potential spread of disease on board while filling out a form for Australian officials.

    “One of the questions you are asked in that form is, ‘Was there any situation on board which may lead to infection or spread of disease’,” he said. “And the answer given is ‘N’ for no. What is the explanation for no to that question?”

    Due to technical issues, Von Watzdorf was not able to see a copy of the form on Wednesday, and told the inquiry that the question could have been in a section specifically about gastrointestinal issues.

    “Typically that question would be linked to an outbreak of gastroenteritis,” she said. “I feel very disadvantaged by answering a question about a sheet I cannot see, and the context.”

    Commissioner Walker asked: “You, as a doctor, would not read your human health report as revealing no signs of Covid-19?”

    Von Watzdorf responded: “Let me put it this way: if somebody asked me was this consistent with Covid-19, I would have said yes.”

    The inquiry also heard from Sebastiano Azzarelli, the ship’s staff captain, who was effectively second in command.

    Azzarelli came aboard the Ruby Princess on 18 February in Auckland.

    He confirmed he was present for a phone call from the ship’s bridge to the Sydney vessel traffic services (VTS) in the early moments of 19 March, as the ship pulled into Sydney harbour. The call was used to explain the orders for medical disembarkations.

    “I remember VTS called the bridge looking for [the Maritime Arrivals Reporting System] declaration, which we do not have that information,” Azzarelli said.

    Von Watzdorf was also present for the call, the inquiry heard.

    Earlier in the inquiry, Von Watzdorf said the disembarkations were for two patients with a heart condition and nerve damage. They had no clear and obvious signs of Covid-19, she said.

    Azzarelli told the inquiry he could not remember what reasons were given to VTS for the medical disembarkation.

    The inquiry resumes on Thursday morning.


    Naaman Zhou and Christopher Knaus

    The GuardianTramp

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