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More COVID-19 cases on stranded ship with 4 dead, as cruise line pleads for help

A total of nine people have now tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship sailing in the Caribbean Sea with no definite place to dock as of yet.

Cruise line's president suggests deaths could have been avoided if ship had assistance earlier

Passengers Margaret Tilley and David Andrews while they were transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam cruise ship. (Submitted by Margaret Tilley)

A total of nine people have now tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship sailing in the Caribbean Sea with no definite place to dock as of yet.

Four people on the ship have died since the start of a flu-like illness outbreak on the ship that began in mid-March. Two of the deceased tested positive for COVID-19; Holland America has not yet said how the other two died.

An additional two people are in serious condition and need to be hospitalized. 

Those latest details were announced Tuesday by William R. Burke, chief maritime officer of Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Holland America, as he spoke to a meeting of the Broward County Commission. The Florida county is home to Fort Lauderdale, where the Zaandam and its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, are hoping to dock later this week.

Of 11 people on board who have been tested for COVID-19 so far, nine were positive, Burke said. He further said only about 14 people on both ships are currently experiencing flu-like symptoms, despite a statement released Monday citing illness in 76 passengers and 117 crew members.

The larger figures represent cumulative cases, Burke said, and don't take into account the "60-plus people" that have recovered.

"I recognize the numbers are quite different than what you read in the press, because what we report in the press is an accumulation of people who have been sick," Burke said.

"At this point, we're assuming that the people who get sick have COVID," he added.

The Zaandam cruise ship, carrying some guests with flu-like symptoms, is anchored after it arrived to the bay of Panama City on Friday. (Arnulfo Franco/The Associated Press)

A total of 248 Canadians are among the 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam. The Rotterdam and its crew joined the Zaandam on Friday, taking on more than half of its passengers to provide some relief for the Zaandam crew. 

The two ships are travelling together toward the southern U.S. coast, though politicians in the Fort Lauderdale area have voiced concerns about allowing in a coronavirus-hit ship.

Broward County officials are aiming to reach a decision by Thursday morning, before the ships reach the area, which could come as early as that afternoon. 

On Monday night, Holland America's president had warned there could be more deaths to come if the "stranded" ships don't secure a place to dock. 

"I fear other lives are at risk," Orlando Ashford wrote in a lengthy statement on the company's website. 

"We are dealing with a 'not my problem' syndrome," he said, reprimanding previous countries that closed their ports to the wandering Zaandam, before it teamed up with the Rotterdam. 

"It's tempting to speculate about the illnesses that may have been avoided or lives saved if we'd gotten the assistance we sought weeks ago," he said. 

Constant rejection

After cutting short its South American cruise on March 14 amidst the growing COVID-19 epidemic, the Zaandam has been searching for a place to dock so its passengers could return home. 

The ship had arranged to dock on Punta Arenas, Chile, on March 16, Ashford said, but the country rejected the Zaandam after closing its borders due to COVID-19 concerns. Argentina and Peru also closed their borders and rejected the ship.

Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, says the illnesses and four deaths onboard the Zaandam cruise ship may have been avoided if countries hadn't rejected the ship's request to dock. (Holland America)

"Repeated requests for humanitarian consideration were denied," he wrote.

Ashford suggested the consequences were dire. By March 22, people began falling ill and four passengers eventually died.

In his statement, Ashford also suggested countries have been uncooperative in helping the Zaandam obtain medical supplies.

"Nations are reluctant to share provisions or afraid to carry critical supplies out to us. What happens when our supplies run out?" he said.

'It's stressful'

Meanwhile, passengers are desperate for news that Fort Lauderdale will accept both the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, so that they can finally end their saga and return home. Passengers began their cruise on March 7.

"It's stressful. I'm trying to stay positive — it's not easy," said Margaret Tilley, 71, of Nanaimo, B.C. who's been confined to her cabin since the illness outbreak over a week ago. 

"That was a frightening day when [the captain] announced those deaths. I was in tears. I was so scared," Tilley said.

John Williams, 72, remains confined to his cabin on Holland America's Zaandam cruise ship. (Submitted by Tanya Williams)

Politicians in Fort Lauderdale have argued that the surrounding county is already overrun with COVID-19 cases.

"I don't want a ship wandering around with no place to dock, so I'm sympathetic. I think most of the commission is sympathetic," said Broward County commissioner Steve Geller at Tuesday's meeting to discuss the fate of the two ships.

"[But] we are elected by the voters of Broward County and really do have an obligation to the roughly two million citizens in Broward."

Still, the stranded passengers wait and hope their pattern of rejection ends soon. 

"It's just a waiting game," said Tilley. "We can't solve it ourselves. We can't fix anything.… We're at their mercy."

Once passengers do disembark, Carnival said it will arrange flights home for them. 

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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