Four passengers have passed away on board a Holland America Line cruise ship currently sailing off the coast of Panama. Over 130 passengers on the ship have reported flu-like symptoms, with at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19. According to the cruise operator, there are 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board, as well as four doctors and four nurses.
“Holland America Line can confirm that four older guests have passed away on Zaandam,” the cruise line said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families, and we are doing everything we can to support them during this difficult time.”
The MS Zaandam, previously on a South American cruise, was attempting to move through the Panama Canal toward Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Panamanian government, however, has denied the ship access to the canal for sanitary reasons, leaving passengers and crew at a loss as to when or how they will make it home.
Chris Joiner, 59, a retiree from Ottawa, Ontario, told Reuters that the cruise had turned into a “nightmare.”
Joiner became worried when his wife, Anna, also 59, developed a cough after cruise operators determined they would be transferring healthy passengers to the Zaandam’s sister ship, the Rotterdam, which is, at the time of this writing, alongside the vessel in Panamanian waters. The Panamanian government has not yet indicated if it would allow the Rotterdam through the canal, even if it were only transporting healthy passengers.
“We’re isolated. We’re stuck on this ship. We can’t go anywhere because we’re not healthy, I guess,” said Joiner, who took a selfie in his cabin with a piece of paper on which he had written “HELP US” in a bid for attention from the media and the Canadian government.
“We are slowly losing hope that we will ever dock and get off this ship,” said Chris Joiner. “We need the Canadian government to step up to the plate and help us.” Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that it's monitoring the situation.
“Some positive news, we have started to see a leveling off of guests reporting symptoms to the medical center,” the ship's official said, adding that every person aboard has received one surgical mask. He also urged passengers to keep them as clean as possible since he did not know when more would arrive.
Family members of those aboard have become distressed at not being told when their loved ones will be getting off the ship or returning home. And many of those on the ship are elderly, with underlying health conditions.
Hayley Johnson, whose 90-year-old grandfather and 75-year-old grandmother are aboard the Zaandam, tweeted that “It’s terrifying that no plan has been made for them and there are British nationals on this ship who need help.” Johnson is especially worried about her grandmother, who is a Type 1 diabetic.
“If they can just find a port to dock it would be a huge relief. The fact they’re just sitting on board a ship, it’s like they’re sitting ducks,” said Neil Bedford, whose parents are on board.
More than 53 guests and 85 crew have reported to the ship’s medical center with flu-like symptoms. Passengers have been told to say in self-isolation until further notice.
Holland America is owned by the Carnival Corporation, which also owns Princess Cruises. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, three Princess cruise ships—the Ruby Princess, the Diamond Princess, and the Grand Princess—are no longer at sea due to confirmed cases of the coronavirus onboard.
As a result of these three outbreaks, 11 people have died and more than 900 passengers have contracted COVID-19, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has also confirmed that the genetic material of the novel coronavirus could be found in cabins as much as 17 days after those cabins were vacated by passengers.