A leading infection control expert holds grave concerns for mine workers locked down by a COVID outbreak at a remote Papua New Guinea mine.
A leading infection control expert holds grave concerns for mine workers locked down by a COVID outbreak at a remote Papua New Guinea mine.

COVID expert fears for mine crew in PNG

A LEADING infection control expert holds grave concerns for Cairns-based mine workers locked down by a COVID-19 outbreak at a remote Papua New Guinea mine.

On Thursday the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in the remote highlands of the Western Provence shut down its operations after seven employees tested positive to coronavirus in Tabubil.

It is understood one employee had been travelling to the mine site by bus before returning a positive test.

Mine chief executive Musje Werror said it was "likely more people have been infected" and "an unacceptable risk of accelerated transmission" led to a 14-day suspension of all mining operations.

Aerial view of Tabubil on the Fly River in the remote Papua New Guinean Western Provence.
Aerial view of Tabubil on the Fly River in the remote Papua New Guinean Western Provence.

Vanessa Sparke from James Cook University's College of Healthcare Sciences agreed there was a "high risk" co-workers had been infected.

"Anyone who has been travelling with him - particularly in close confines like a bus - for a period of time and anyone who has been working in close contact with him in the mine within that 1-2m distance (is) a high risk (of being) infected," she said.

"It does open a can of worms because if they get really sick they will have to be evacuated back to Australia."

A Dash 8 aircraft on the ground at OK Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. The mine operated a weekly service between PNG’s Western Provence and Cairns Airport.
A Dash 8 aircraft on the ground at OK Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. The mine operated a weekly service between PNG’s Western Provence and Cairns Airport.

The company runs a weekly charter flight in and out of the mine site between Cairns and Tabubil for FNQ workers and interstate crews who usually transit through the Cairns ­Airport.

Ms Sparke said the outbreak could be complicated if Australian workers needed evacuation.

"The risk for them is if they are quarantined at one location and some become quite ill the mine health services would have to respond quickly to try and evacuate them to a tertiary level care," she said.

The Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea has shut down following a COVID outbreak.
The Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea has shut down following a COVID outbreak.

"If I was an Australian up at the mine site I would be a bit concerned."

Workers have been effectively stranded after Ok Tedi suspended all charter flights in and out of the area earlier this week. The company said a mine shutdown would allow contact tracing and isolation of infected employees.

Barron River MP Craig Crawford said Australian health workers had been deployed to PNG amid a rise in Port Moresby infections.

"I have concerns that we are going to see increasing, rising numbers in PNG, if we are not watching that space it could sneak up on us and bite us quite hard," he said.

Ok Tedi has been contacted directly for comment but did not respond before deadline.

Originally published as COVID expert fears for Cairns mine crew in PNG



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