23 Apr 2020

The NZ doctor aboard the cruise ship with more than 100 Covid-19 cases

6:36 am on 23 April 2020

It would be anyone's worst nightmare: being stuck on a cruise ship, confined to your cabin, because more than half of the people on board have Covid-19.

Dr Jeffrey Green.

Dr Jeffrey Green. Photo: Supplied

But that was the situation Hawke's Bay-based Jeffrey Green was facing on the Greg Mortimer, as the expedition doctor for the cruise around South Georgia and Antarctica.

By the time everyone was evacuated from the ship, more than half of the 217 passengers and crew had tested positive for Covid-19.

And at one point, Dr Green was the only medical professional on board who could help the sick, after the ship's other doctor also contracted the virus.

When the cruise departed Argentina in mid-March, changes had already been made to the itinerary because of border restrictions in South America, and the trip had been scaled down from 18 stays to 11, Dr Green said.

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

For the first week or so, everything seemed fine.

But then one passenger developed a fever.

Dr Green said there were plans in place and they were ready for a case of Covid-19.

"That passenger and their partner went into an isolation wing, which we put at the end of one of the corridors.

"Everyone on board, all the passengers, went to their rooms. They were masked up and we went into an isolation pattern and that's how we ran the ship right until the moment we got off."

Aerial view of Australian cruise ship Greg Mortimer off the port of Montevideo on April 7, 2020.

Aerial view of Australian cruise ship Greg Mortimer off the port of Montevideo on April 7, 2020. Photo: Pablo Porciuncula / AFP

There were more infections, but initially most people only had mild symptoms, Dr Green said.

The more serious cases developed once the ship reached Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.

"What happens is that after the fever, things start escalating, people start developing other symptoms," Dr Green said.

Those symptoms include breathing problems and what Dr Green described as "hearing crackles over the chest".

"These are really bad signs because it can go downhill very quickly."

With the approval of authorities in Uruguay, eight of the most serious cases were able to be taken off the ship and taken to hospital.

"I was just amazed that the Uruguayan health system was willing to help us," Dr Green said.

"That was my ultimate nightmare, that I'd be stuck running this situation with no backup."

About a week after the first case, the ship's other doctor also contracted Covid-19.

He had a fever and was quite unwell - and, of course, he had to go into isolation.

"So then I was the only person left on board on the medical side."

Passengers of the COVID-19 coronavirus-stricken Australian liner Greg Mortimer disembark in personal protective equipment from the cruise ship at Montevideo's port from where Australian and New Zealander passengers will be directly escorted to the international airport

Photo: AFP

Dr Green said there was plenty of personal protective equipment on the ship and they were able to get extra supplies.

"But of course, you go through PPE really quickly in that situation.

"We were doing things like taking everyone's temperature twice a day, and then we had these more serious cases that we had to go in and see so you're burning through the PPE quickly.

"But luckily, again, the Uruguayans were able to reprovision us. We were being supplied with extra PPE and the [cruise] company had already organised the transfer of new suits, new masks and all the gear."

It was a nightmare situation, but Dr Green said once people started being transferred to hospital, it became more manageable.

The next hurdle was getting everyone off the ship and back home.

The cruise company, Aurora Expeditions, spent days working with various governments to finalise an evacuation plan.

The Australians and New Zealanders were the first to leave the ship, and Dr Green said, as they drove in a motorcade through the streets of Montevideo to the airport, locals lined the streets waving and cheering them on.

A chartered medical flight took the group to Melbourne, before the New Zealanders were transferred on to another flight to Auckland.

Dr Green said it was a surreal experience.

"Everyone apart from us, all the attendants were totally geared out in full PPE suits. There was an area that had been cordoned off and sealed off in case medical emergencies happen during the flight, so it was set up as a hospital, and as a plane."

Dr Green and the other passengers who were on board the Greg Mortimer are still in high-level isolation in Auckland.

They are checked daily by nurses and there are doctors on call if they do get sick.

Dr Green said they were allowed outside for fresh air, and they had worked out that eight laps of the hotel car park is about 2km.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health confirmed that three of the people who returned home from the Greg Mortimer have since tested positive for Covid-19.

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