Australia Awaits Findings On Cruise Ship Coronavirus Outbreak

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MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - The findings of a public inquiry into how passengers infected with the novel coronavirus were allowed to disembark a cruise ship in Sydney in March, triggering a major outbreak of more than 600 cases and 20 deaths, are set to be handed down on Friday (Aug 14).

The government of New South Wales (NSW) state commissioned the probe into the events leading up to the disembarkation of 2,700 passengers from the Carnival Corp-owned Ruby Princess on March 17 without proper screening for the virus.

Passengers from the ship spread the virus across the country and internationally, resulting in more than 600 cases and 20 deaths in what was at the time Australia's largest outbreak of the disease.

The inquiry has heard evidence from medics, cruise ship executives and senior staff from the state's health department.

Some testimony pointed to confusion between state and federal authorities over who bore final responsibility.

NSW officials rated the liner as "low risk" since it had only visited New Zealand, although some passengers had flown in from countries including the United States, the inquiry heard.

The inquiry's findings could put pressure on senior officials in the state and federal governments to take responsibility for the failures.

"The special commission will hand down its report later today and we will...see what they have to say. I’m sure they will touch on all of those issues," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a media conference.

Australia was quick to bring the first wave of infection under control, but a second wave since June in the state of Victoria has proven far deadlier.

Victoria reported 14 deaths on Friday, one a man in his 20s, the youngest fatality so far. The state also recorded 372 new cases, a jump of nearly 100 infections from the previous day which was the lowest in more than three weeks. 

Even so, the trend in Victoria is positive and cases are well down from their peak of 725 on Aug 5, thanks to a hard lockdown in the city of Melbourne now in its second week.

Victoria Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said it was likely the death rate in the state had levelled off helped by the stabilisation of case numbers in recent days. 

"I think we will see a levelling off of hospitalisations for community cases in the next couple of weeks and the same for deaths," Dr Sutton said in a media briefing in Melbourne. 

Mystery cases – the ones where the source of the infection cannot be traced – are still a big worry for authorities as contact tracers have been unable to find the source of 20 per cent of cases in the state. 

"They don’t have anyone in their household, who has been unwell, nobody in the workplace. The places they nominate don’t have existing cases, clusters, out breaks so we can’t determine absolutely where they got it from," Dr Sutton said.

The latest cases bring the tally in Australia since the pandemic began to 22,739 infections and 375 deaths, mostly in Victoria.

Outside the two most populous states of NSW and Victoria, the virus has been effectively eliminated.