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4 passengers die on cruise ship stranded off Panama

  • Author: Alex Harris, The Miami Herald
  • Updated: March 27
  • Published March 27

The Zaandam cruise ship, top center, carrying dozens of guests with flu-like symptoms, arrives to the bay of Panama City, seen from Isla de Taboga, Panama, Friday, March 27, 2020, amid the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus. Once the vessel reaches Panamanian waters, health authorities are expected to board the ship to test passengers and decide whether it can cross the Panama Canal to head on towards Fort Lauderdale. On the beach in the foreground is a Catholic altar featuring Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or "La Virgen del Carmen," considered the patron saint of sailors. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

MIAMI -- Four passengers have died aboard the cruise ship Zaandam as it awaits permission to transit the Panama Canal.

Almost 150 people are sick with flulike symptoms, according to a release from Seattle-based Holland America cruise line. It is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

The captain announced the deaths to passengers and crew Friday afternoon, along with news that two passengers have tested positive for COVID-19. He also stated the company planned to evacuate hundreds of healthy passengers to a sister ship anchored nearby.

The Zaandam originally left Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 with 1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board for a two-week cruise. It has been anchored off the coast of Panama awaiting permission to pass through the canal and had hoped to dock in Port Everglades ever since it was turned away from its original destination, Chile, on March 21.

On Friday, the Panamanian government told reporters the ship would not be allowed to pass through if anyone on board had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

"If there are confirmed cases of COVID-19, the ship has to go into quarantine," the administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, Ricaurte Vásquez, told Telemetro Reporta. "If there are elements of contagion, the ship has to go into quarantine. That is not an alternative or an option."

Holland America did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Panamanian reports, but family members of passengers aboard were alarmed by the news.

Lisa Marion, a Toronto-area woman whose parents are on the ship, called the quarantine off the coast of Panama "a nightmare."

"I'm concerned that the longer they stay at sea, the more likely they are to catch COVID-19. And if they are bound to have it, I want them here in Canada where they will get appropriate care," she said.

As of Friday, 148 of the 1,243 passengers and 586 crew onboard are experiencing flulike symptoms, the company said. On Sunday, that number was 42.

Earlier this week, the company sent a sister ship, the Rotterdam, to aid the Zaandam. It was originally meant to bring medical supplies, personnel and COVID-19 tests, but the company has since decided to transfer hundreds of passengers from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam in what it calls a "humanitarian mission."

The company said it will only transfer healthy patients who show no symptoms, starting with people in interior cabins and those over the age of 70, but it won't be testing the passengers it transfers. This has alarmed crew members aboard the Rotterdam, who are terrified of importing the illness to a ship with more than 600 crew aboard.

"Is it humanitarian to do this to the Rotterdam crew, that is here to support their families? Has anyone paused to think what is Holland America Line going to tell their parents, children, when they get infected and eventually die? Are they not seeing the news?" said a crew member aboard the Rotterdam who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation. "Who cares!? After all is crew members who are sent to slaughter!!!!"

The crew member also provided the Miami Herald with a document circulated by the company answering frequently asked questions about the transfer of passengers. Many of the questions focus on the possibility of transferring the coronavirus along with the passengers; the answers downplay the risk to crew members, noting that many of them recently took shore leave.

"The trip ashore actually posed a higher risk than what we are suggesting with the transfer of healthy guests from Zaandam to Rotterdam. Catching a flight is now considered a high-risk exposure while serving healthy guests in isolation without any physical contact is considered a very low risk operation," the FAQ said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said cruise ships are a veritable petri dish for coronavirus spread.

The document also said that there is little risk because passengers have already been isolated for five to six days and people with COVID-19 usually show symptoms "in about three to five days," which is incorrect. The CDC says infected people can show symptoms anytime between two and 14 days, and some people contract the disease without showing any symptoms at all.

One question on the document read: "If we do get a COVID-19 case on board, won't we have created now two ships with trouble?"

"We believe this is a very low probability," the answer read. "We should be able to fully prevent anything from spreading throughout the vessel while moving back up North."

That attitude is not shared by passengers on board the Zaandam, even those who feel fine and hope to secure a spot on the other ship.

"We all know those going over to the Rotterdam could have the virus and spread it there," said Cliff Kolber, a 72-year-old Miramar man on board the ship with his wife, who was reached by phone.

The document explains that guests will be transferred from ship to ship via a "secure corridor" that will be "super" sanitized ahead of time.

In answer to a question about whether ship has even personal protective equipment -- such as masks and gloves -- aboard, the crew document said, "team who need PPE for a particular job they are doing will be provided it to wear based on their individual risk." The document states that crew serving food to guests will not be given PPE because "there will not be direct exposure to the guests."

Another answer on the document said that if crew has to enter the cabin, they will be given protective gear.

The FAQ explains that only guests with no symptoms will be transferred over, but said they will not be tested beforehand because "testing well people is not advised by any health experts." The company only plans to use test kits to confirm whether COVID-19 is on board and causing the illness. It does not specifically answer the question of whether tests will be available for crew.

Several questions on the FAQ clearly show that the Rotterdam crew's anxiety is well known by superiors.

In answer to a question about what happens if someone isn't comfortable servicing cabins with food or laundry, the FAQ said "nobody will be pushed to do something that doesn't feel right to them."

"Why do we need to do this?" is one of the first questions listed.

"There is no other place for us to take the guests and no other means to provide assistance to the Zaandam and our fellow team members on board. This is the only option, as the ports and airports in South America and Central America are closed to us," the document reads.