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Stranded ship with sick passengers crosses Panama Canal, aims for Florida

The Holland America Line ship where four people have died, two have tested positive for covid-19 and nearly 200 report flu-like symptoms made it through the Panama Canal on Monday morning after days of uncertainty.

Since March 22, the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms on the Zaandam has risen steadily, from 42 initially to 189 as of early Monday morning. The cause of death for the four passengers has not been confirmed.

Now comes the next big question: Where will it be allowed to dock? The operator, owned by Carnival Corp., has been hoping to let passengers disembark at Port Everglades, the cruise port in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Zaandam is accompanied by another Holland America ship, the Rotterdam, where passengers who showed no symptoms were transferred over the weekend. There are 1,442 people on that ship and 1,048 on the Zaandam. In a video message released to passengers on both ships Sunday afternoon, Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford said the ships would stay together with the intention “to work in tandem to try to protect the health of those that are healthy and so that we can create room and space so that we can care for the ones that are sick.”


The Zaandam cruise ship sails toward the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean, as seen from Panama City. (Bienvenido Velasco/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Tweets from the official Port Everglades account Sunday afternoon said the cruise line had not received official approval to enter; Holland America will have to submit a plan “that addresses a long list” of requirements from local, state and federal officials. Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine said Monday morning in a tweet that the U.S. Coast Guard would require a plan to be submitted and approved before the ships could enter U.S. waters.

The Port Everglades account said it would take about three days to arrive in South Florida after getting through the canal.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told Fox News Monday morning that he has been in contact with the White House as well as officials in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties about the issue, which he called “a big, big problem.” His concern, he said, was that hard-hit South Florida hospitals have been working diligently to make sure they have available beds when residents need them.

“We cannot afford to have people who aren’t even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources,” he said.


Passengers of Holland America's cruise ship Zaandam are seen as the ship navigates through the Panama Canal. (Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images)

In a statement early Monday, the cruise line thanked officials in Panama — who initially denied the request to cross the canal — for their “humanitarian consideration and the compassion.”

“We are still finalizing the details for where and when our guests will disembark,” the company said, “and are asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for our arrival."

Zaandam left Buenos Aires on March 7; after suspending operations on March 13, Holland America tried to end the cruise in Chile on March 16 so passengers could fly home, but authorities would not let anyone disembark.

In his video message, Ashford apologized to passengers that their trip did not turn out to be the “vacation that you initially signed up for.”

“This has turned into a safety and a humanitarian effort,” he said. “We are doing everything that we can within our power — and outside of our power — to try to make sure that we can get you home and get you home safely.”

Read more:

Four passengers have died, two test positive for covid-19 on cruise ship stranded off the coast of Panama

Carnival’s CEO says cruise ships aren’t riskier for getting sick. Public health experts tell a different story.

All major cruise lines halt sailings temporarily in response to coronavirus

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