Lawyer Debi Challik has accused Princess Cruises of deliberately testing a only small number of passengers aboard the Ruby Princess cruise liner that docked in Sydney, sparking a COVID-19 outbreak.
Ms Challik, who is suing the cruise company on behalf of dozens of US Ruby Princess passengers, told Channel 9’s 60 Minutes “it was unbelievable, it’s like the Wild West what happened in Australia”.
Around 600 passengers have launched a class action against Princess Cruises.
The Ruby Princess docked in Sydney on March 19, when 2700 passengers disembarked. As of March 30, at least 440 passengers had tested positive for the virus.
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However, Ms Challik’s claims medical staff deliberately only tested a small proportion of passengers for coronavirus have been categorically denied by Princess Cruises.
“The allegation is absolutely untrue and without substance. We see it as an egregious defamation of the ship’s senior doctor and on-board medical team,” a company spokesman told news.com.au.
On 60 Minutes last night, reporter Tom Steinfort said that Princess Cruises had already dealt with a similar situation of a coronavirus outbreak aboard one of its ships in California shortly before the Ruby Princess sailed into Sydney.
In that earlier case, an elderly patient with underlying health conditions died on March 5 after testing positive for coronavirus. He had just returned from the Mexican Riviera aboard the Grand Princess the previous month.
Some passengers aboard the Grand Princess were quarantined with several exhibiting potential signs of coronavirus which resulted in the cruise liner being ordered to remain offshore by the Californian government.
Ms Challik, who is acting for the family of Ruby Princess passengers including American national Chung Chen, who died as a result of the pandemic when he returned home to Los Angeles, said it was extraordinary that only 15 per cent holiday-makers aboard the cruise ship were tested for coronavirus.
“Clearly they did not want to be honest with the Australian government about how many infections were aboard their ship as they would have to go through the whole process again,” Ms Challik told 60 Minutes.
“They probably would not have been allowed to dock (in Sydney).
“They did not want to lose more money yet again.”
Ms Challik previously told the ABC that the case against Princess Cruises was based on “corporate negligence and corporate gross negligence, they sailed on March 8 knowing that there was a huge risk of putting their passengers exposed to COVID-19”.
So far more than 6800 people in Australia have tested positive for coronavirus and 95 people have died.
Steinfort said that Princess Cruises had admitted to having a bonus scheme relating to overall performance, but denied passing on incentives to avoid any delays.
At the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess, the ship’s senior doctor, Dr Ilse Von Wartzdorf, admitted advising ambulance officers to attend the scene in full personal protective equipment (PPE) to treat infected passengers.
One of those infected passengers was Tony Londero, who was on the cruise with his wife Kerry. He came down with flu-like symptoms and heart problems. His health deteriorated quickly and after three days he was taken to hospital on a stretcher.
“The doctor did not believe I had coronavirus but it was mentioned. She believed I had something stressing my heart, a flu or something like that was causing my heart to do crazy things,” Mr Londero, who has now tested negative for coronavirus, told 60 Minutes.
He was tested for influenza A and B on the ship and was found to be negative.
“It seems silly now, doesn’t it?” Mr Londero said, of the fact his mystery illness was not immediately diagnosed. “Now it’s so obvious.”
Ms Challik added: “It does not have to be rocket science to know if you are telling ambulance workers to show up in PPE in advance before coming near passengers, then you are suspecting COVID-19.”