Four elderly passengers have died from COVID-19 aboard the stricken cruise ship MS Zaandam now temporarily anchored at the Bay of Panama as the ship continues its panicked flight towards the safety of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There are at least 42 persons aboard this ship exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
The stunning announcement of the deaths from Carnival Corporation, owners of Holland America Line (the company that operates the Zaandam), also revealed two other passengers had tested positive for COVID-19. Zaandam's plight has been complicated by the government of Panama denying it permission to transit the Panama Canal, the shortest route to Fort Lauderdale. There is no word on what Holland America plans to do in light of Panama's denial of passage. Holland America, however, said "alternative options are also being developed" if it can't pass through the Panama Canal.
In a statement, Carnival admitted "four older guests have passed away on Zaandam," but refused to publicly admit they died of COVID-19 despite two other elderly passengers testing positive for the disease. "No one has been off the ship since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile," said Carnival.
Carnival also owns two other infamous cruise ships inextricably linked to the COVID-19 crisis: the MS Diamond Princess still docked in Japan and the MS Grand Princess in quarantine off Los Angeles, California.
The MS Rotterdam, transferred supplies, medical personnel and COVID-19 testing devices to the Zaandam on Friday. Carnival said it plans to transfer healthy passengers from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam before they're further exposed to COVID-19. Rotterdam is a sister ship to the Zaandam.
Carnival said all passengers and crew exhibiting symptoms will remain aboard the Zaandam. It said these moves comply with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Zaandam's hellish cruise began when it departed Buenos Aires on March 7 for a pleasure cruise that should have ended in Chile on March 21. While the ship was at sea, Holland America "made the decision to suspend its global cruise operations for 30 days and end its current cruises in progress as quickly as possible so guests could return home."
Zaandam was already at sea when this decision was made. There are 1,829 people (1,243 passengers, 586 crew) aboard ship. Zaandam was heading towards Florida when Holland America announced some people on the ship had fallen ill. It has to sail through the Panama Canal to get to Florida but Panama closed its borders to foreigners due to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 16. It's also uncertain if Fort Lauderdale will grant the cruise ship permission to dock.
Zaandam departed Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 7. This departure took place before Holland America's decision on March 13 to suspend its global cruise operations for 30 days.
At the time the passengers fell ill, the country closes to the Zaandam's location, Chile wouldn't allow the ship to dock, fearful the ship might be contaminated with COVID-19.
"We're no longer a healthy ship," said one Canadian passenger. "We are now concerned that no port will allow us to get off."