MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguay evacuated 112 Australians and New Zealanders Friday from a cruise ship that has been anchored off the South American country’s coast since March 27 with more than half its passengers and crew infected with the new coronavirus. Officials say the evacuees will be flown to Australia early Saturday.
At least six Americans, five British citizens and passengers from other countries, as well 83 crew members, remain aboard the Greg Mortimer, a ship operated by Australia’s Aurora Expeditions, while arrangements for their evacuation are made.
“Our priority remains to disembark everyone as soon as possible and with the utmost security,” Aurora Expeditions said in a statement Friday.
A sign hanging from a balcony on the Greg Mortimer said “Thank you, Uruguay.” The country had originally refused to let passengers off the cruise ship, after authorities said that 128 of the 217 people tested on the ship were positive for the new coronavirus. They later sent medical teams to the ship to ensure people’s health and monitored the situation via WhatsApp.
Most of the crew and passengers have mild symptoms and are stable, Karina Rando, director general of Uruguay’s Public Health Ministry, told The Associated Press.
“We are at a moment in the epidemic that allows us to evacuate. We have intensive care beds, doctors are available and we are not putting the care of our population at risk,” Rando said. “We have the logistical and professional capacity to serve these people.”
The Greg Mortimer departed March 15 on a voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia that was titled “In Shackleton’s Footsteps,” a reference to the polar explorer who led British expeditions to the region and died there in 1922.
After arriving at Uruguay’s coast, eight tourists were evacuated and interned in health centers in Montevideo. Five of them have since been discharged and three of those will be repatriated.
The evacuated passengers will be repatriated using a humanitarian corridor with biosecurity measures unprecedented for the South American country.
Later Friday, they will be driven in four buses to Montevideo’s Carrasco airport, escorted by police and medical personnel. At the runway, the passengers and their luggage will be disinfected prior to boarding.
A refitted airplane operated by charter airline Hi Fly will take them to Melbourne, Australia, where the passengers will undergo a 14-day quarantine, the company said. The flight is expected to leave Uruguay at around 2 a.m. Saturday local time.
On Uruguay’s mainland there are 494 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and seven deaths. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.