Australian police and military will soon begin helicoptering doctors to several cruise ships stranded near Sydney to assess nearly 9,000 crew for COVID-19, officials said Thursday.
The military-style operation, due to begin by the weekend, is aimed at resolving a standoff between cruise line operators and authorities who fear a wave of new imported coronavirus cases would overwhelm local hospitals.
Australia ordered a ban on all cruise liners in mid-March, but later allowed Australian nationals to disembark from four ships in Sydney - a decision which led to more than 450 new COVID-19 cases in the country.
"I'm holding the line on this," said Police Commissioner Mick Fuller of New South Wales state, which includes Sydney and where most of the cruise ships are located.
"My fear is by bringing 9,000 people off the cruise ships into isolation, not knowing if they have the virus or they may develop symptoms, that would absolutely overload our hospital system," he said Thursday.
"We will drop doctors across eight ships, 9,000 people -- It's a big task in itself," he said.
Fuller said anyone found to need urgent medical care would be brought to facilities onshore, but the ships would be expected to head to their home ports with the rest of their crews.
"We are taking a sensible but pragmatic approach to these cruise ships," he said, adding that talks with the ships' owners were ongoing.
Local media reports say a total of 18 foreign-registered ships are in Australian waters or ports with up to 15,000 crew on board.
Ship owners have reportedly asked that crew stranded on ships be allowed to fly to their home countries.
But while authorities in Western Australia permitted some 800 German cruise ship passengers to fly home last weekend, officials have baulked at doing the same for thousands of crew.
Australia has registered more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19 and 23 deaths.