4 Dead, 138 Sick with Coronavirus Symptoms Aboard Holland America Cruise Ship

Four people have died and 138 are ill with coronavirus-like symptoms aboard Holland America’s MS Zaandam cruise ship. The vessel, which is currently stranded off the coast of Panama after being denied entry at ports in Chile, now has plans to sail for Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Two people out of an undisclosed number tested have been confirmed to have the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

It’s unclear if the four “older guests” who died had been tested for the virus.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and we are doing everything we can to support them during this difficult time,” Holland America said in a statement.

As of March 22, Fifty-three passengers and eighty-five crew members reported to the ship’s medical center reporting flu-like symptoms, which are similar to those associated with COVID-19.

Since that time, all passengers were asked to stay in their staterooms and all public areas are closed. Non-essential crew members are being quarantined.

The ship set sail from Buenos Aires on March 7, days before the company, which is part of the Carnival Corporation, suspended all sailings for 30 days on March 13. Its voyage was intended to end in San Antonio, Chile on March 21. 

After March 13, all ships currently at sea were ordered home by the company and the Zaandam began looking for “an expedient and safe port” from which it could fly the 1,243 passengers on board home, a spokesperson tells people.

However, “as the ship proceeded north, port options became more limited due to the continued port closures and travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19,” the spokesperson added. “San Antonio was closed for disembarkation as well as all Chilean ports.”

No passengers had left the boat since March 14, when it made a planned stop in Punta Arenas in far southern Chile.

A second Holland America ship carrying only crew, the MS Rotterdam, met the MS Zaandam off shore on Thursday evening to deliver medical supplies, including coronavirus tests, and begin to transfer some healthy passengers to the new, empty ship.

This will be done “with strict protocols for this process developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the company said in a statement. Only asymptomatic passengers who have undergone a health screening will be allowed to board the Rotterdam, and priority will be given to passengers over the age of 70 and those who were staying in interior staterooms.

Members of Panama’s Aeronaval National Service were also seen heading off shore to assist the two ships.

Any passenger who is ill or has been in contact with someone who is ill, as well as all crew will stay aboard the Zaandam. There are also four doctors and four nurses on the ship.

Before it can head to Florida, the vessel needs to make an unplanned passage through the Panama Canal, for which it has not yet been approved.

“While the onward plan for both ships is still being finalized, we continue to work with the Panamanian authorities on approval to transit the Panama Canal for sailing to Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” the cruise line said in a statement.

Holland America operates 14 ships on voyages on all seven continents. President Orlando Ashford said of the decision to cancel cruises on March 14, “We thank all of our guests, travel advisor partners, employees and business partners for their support during this challenging time. We look forward to welcoming our guests back on board soon.”

Since the beginning of the global spread of COVID-19, several cruise ships have seen severe — and deadly — outbreaks of the virus.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, for weeks in February with sick passengers on board. A total of 621 people eventually tested positive. According to Reuters, seven former passengers have now died. Some of the infected passengers from that ship have since become among the first to take part in a coronavirus drug trial.

A second ship, the Grand Princess, was quarantined off San Francisco after 21 people on board tested positive for the illness in March. That ship has since docked in the port of Oakland and those on board have been placed in quarantine on land.

A few days before most major cruise lines made the call to suspend voyages, the U.S. State Department issued a warning that U.S. citizens “should not travel by cruise ship” during the coronavirus outbreak, noting that the “cruise ship environment” can foster an “increased risk of infection.” The CDC issued a similar statement.

“Cruise ships are incubators,” according to infectious disease expert Dr. William Haseltine. “Everybody’s close together, packed in all the time. One person gets sick, a lot of them get sick. It’s a very unfavorable environment for disease transmission.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.

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