COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern says 109 swabs taken 'in and around' Port of Tauranga have tested negative after Rio De La Plata scare

Almost all of the workers who were potentially exposed to coronavirus last week after a COVID-stricken container ship docked at the Port of Tauranga have now tested negative, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed on Tuesday morning.

On Monday, it was revealed 11 of the 21 crewmen on board the Rio De La Plata, a container ship that docked at the Port of Tauranga last week, had tested positive for COVID-19. The crew had been swabbed by public health staff prior to the vessel travelling to Napier, its next stop. 

The Ministry of Health confirmed that 94 port workers had been stood down as a precautionary measure after coming into contact with the vessel, with the affected staffers required to isolate at home until returning a negative test result.

Earlier on Tuesday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show 65 of the workers had tested negative so far, including the two staffers - both maritime pilots - who had the most contact with the ship. 

"That's really encouraging," he told The AM Show. "They are the people who had the closest contact with the ship, so the fact they've [tested] negative, that's a good sign."

A few hours later, shortly after 10am, the Prime Minister confirmed to reporters at the Beehive that 109 swabs have now tested negative for the virus. 

"One-hundred and ten swabs have been taken in and around the Port of Tauranga as we continue to investigate whether or not there has been any risk fo COVID-19 at that port, given the container ship where crew were infected," Ardern said.

"One-hundred and nine have returned negative. Unfortunately one of the swabs didn't have enough sample to be run on the machine accurately, and so is having to be re-taken. I'm told this happens from time-to-time.

"We expect that final swab to come back sometime this morning and we will give you an update on that final [result]."

It is not clear if the additional 16 swabs were taken from other port workers or their contacts. 

Ardern also addressed concerns surrounding the decision to resume the unloading of the Rio De La Plata last week following a brief pause. 

Unloading of the container ship was temporarily halted last Wednesday (August 4) due to unease regarding the vessel's link to a COVID-positive Australian pilot, who had spent time aboard the ship last month while it was docked in Queensland. The pilot, who is infected with the highly transmissible Delta variant, tested positive nine days after being on-board - however, he has not been linked to any other cases of COVID-19 in the state. 

Despite the concerns, the vessel was given clearance for unloading following an assessment last Wednesday, with work resuming the following day (August 5).

None of the crewmen came port-side while the Rio De La Plata was being unloaded, the ministry confirmed.

"We've been discussing why there was a pause and then a resumption of work. The conversation I've had with [the Ministry of] Health, they are going to pull together all of the decision-making that took place and a bit of sequencing around that and what fed into that decision, we'll be sharing that later today," Ardern told reporters.

She added that more information will be made available regarding how the transmission took place. It's currently unclear whether the pilot infected the crew, or whether the pilot was infected by a crew member while on-board the vessel.

"We'll be putting out all of the information about that later today."

The COVID-stricken Rio De La Plata container ship docked at the Port of Tauranga last week, however unloading was resumed "following an assessment", says the MoH.
The COVID-stricken Rio De La Plata container ship docked at the Port of Tauranga last week, however unloading was resumed "following an assessment", says the MoH. Photo credit: Getty Images

In a statement on Monday, the Ministry of Health noted it's likely some of the 11 infected crew on-board the container ship will be active cases, however it's also possible some are historical infections. Historical cases refer to individuals who have recovered from the virus, but may still be presenting some residual viral matter. These fragments can cause a nasal swab to test positive for COVID-19, despite the individual no longer being infectious.

All of the crew are reported to be well, the ministry said, with none recording any symptoms of the virus. 

Speaking to The AM Show earlier on Tuesday, Hipkins dodged a barrage of criticism from host Duncan Garner regarding the poor vaccination rate among New Zealand's port workforce.

As of July, only 54 percent of port staffers had received both doses of the vaccine. It was later revealed on Monday that only 10 percent of the workers potentially exposed to the virus on-board the Rio De La Plata have received a jab.

Health officials have repeatedly claimed that misinformation is largely to blame for the poor uptake, with Hipkins noting that port workers appear to be particularly "susceptible" to myths surrounding vaccination. 

Teams of medical professionals are now providing one-on-one guidance with reluctant staff as part of an education-based approach, Hipkins said.

Concerns have been raised as to why unvaccinated staff are continuing to work at ports across the country, despite unvaccinated workers being prohibited from entering MIQ facilities. The high number of unvaccinated workers is particularly worrying given a number of international vessels - including the MS Mattina and the Playa Zahara - have had crewmen test positive for COVID-19 after arriving in New Zealand waters. 

Hipkins argued that preventing unvaccinated staff from returning to work would be highly detrimental to the system, as the small percentage of staff who do have close contact with the vessels - many of whom work in specialist roles - are not easily replaced.

Instead, he referred to last month's Public Health Response Order that made vaccination mandatory for all frontline workers - including port staff, airport staff, and managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) staff - "at the greatest risk of exposure" to COVID-19.

Privately employed border workers are required to have their first dose by September 30.

However, Hipkins admitted that the rate of vaccination among the port workforce is "clearly not good enough".

"Let's be clear... vaccines have been available to workers at all of our ports, they've had access to vaccines longer than almost all New Zealanders," he said.

"They were in Group 1, so they have been able to get the vaccine."