Some Canadian passengers from virus-stricken Zaandam cruise still in hospital in Florida

Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday a "small number" of the 247 Canadian passengers on the ill-fated Zaandam cruise ship remain in hospital in Florida.

The ill-fated cruise ship departed for South America just days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic

Passengers look out from the MS Zaandam on March 27. Two weeks after the cruise ship docked in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., most travellers have since returned home, but some remain hospitalized, including Canadians. (Arnuflo Franco/The Associated Press)

Two weeks after the return of the coronavirus-stricken Zaandam cruise ship, a "small number" of its Canadian passengers remain in hospital in Florida, according to Global Affairs Canada. It declined to provide a precise number. 

The passengers include Geoffrey Vaughan's father-in-law, who is alone in a hospital just outside Fort Lauderdale, battling COVID-19.

"My father-in-law has had some rough days; he's had probably a pretty severe case of COVID-19," said Vaughan, who lives in Bowmanville, Ont. "Hopefully he can ride it out and continue to get better."

Vaughan asked that his father-in-law's name remain confidential, though CBC has confirmed he was on the Holland America-owned ship and is currently being treated in a Florida hospital. 

His father-in-law has been diagnosed with pneumonia and is currently on oxygen, said Vaughan, but the family anticipates a full recovery.

He's also alone, as his wife, who was travelling with him, was sent back to Canada shortly after the ship docked. 

"We want him home as quickly as possible," said Vaughan.

Vaughan said his father-in-law, who also lives in Bowmanville, was rushed to hospital shortly after the Zaandam and its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, arrived in Fort Lauderdale on April 2.

A total of 247 Canadian passengers were travelling on the Zaandam last month when the ill-fated cruise was caught up in a wave of uncertainty as global concerns over COVID-19 grew.

8 passengers dead: 'unofficial' list

On March 7, 1,243 passengers boarded the MS Zaandam to set sail on a South American cruise — just days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The ship was then hit with an outbreak of the virus in late March and struggled to secure an immediate place to dock, as countries closed their borders in a bid to stop the spread of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Holland America has said four passengers died on board the Zaandam, and a crew member died shortly after arriving in Florida.

But Florida's Broward County medical examiner Craig Mallak shared what he called an "unofficial list" with CBC News, compiled by one of his investigators, that indicates that a total of eight people from the cruise have now died. Seven of the fatalities tested positive for COVID-19.

Holland America wouldn't confirm the updated death count, citing privacy reasons.

The MS Rotterdam joined the Zaandam on March 27 to deliver medical supplies and to transfer over healthy passengers. (Submitted by Margaret Tilley)

Most passengers were able to return home within days after the Zaandam and the Rotterdam docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on April 2. 

However, 10 critically ill passengers were rushed to a local hospital for immediate care and another 45 who were unwell remained on board until they were cleared for travel.

Vaughan said his father-in-law fell ill shortly after he and his wife were transferred to the Rotterdam, along with many other passengers, during the final days of the cruise, a move aimed at lightening the burden for the original crew.

Due to declining health, his father-in-law was transferred to the hospital a couple days after docking, while his wife remained on the ship.

"It was quite heart-wrenching because … they had to be separated," said Vaughan.

How will he get home?

A few days later, Holland America arranged a chartered flight home for his 70-year-old mother-in-law and other remaining passengers. She was distraught over having to leave, Vaughan said, but was given no choice as Florida wanted the passengers to return home as soon as possible.

"You can imagine the environment of my mother-in-law having to leave her spouse behind in another country," he said.

The family's main concern now is how his father-in-law will get home once he recovers and is released from the hospital. 

"The question is if he'll be able to fly home or not, [or] if he's going to be stranded in a Florida hotel under quarantine with no one to care for him," said Vaughan, noting that his father-in-law's insurance should cover any medical costs. 

Holland America told CBC News it will continue to look after its sick former passengers and make arrangements for them to return home. 

David Kirkham and wife, Norma, are shown during their cruise on the Zaandam before people started falling ill.  (Submitted by Norma Kirkham)

Most of the Zaandam's Canadian passengers flew home on April 3 and are now nearing the end of their mandatory two-week self-quarantine after returning to Canada.

David Kirkham, of Victoria, who had travelled on the Zaandam with his wife, said the federal government has arranged for a nurse to call the couple twice a day to check in.

"They ask the same questions — it's sort of a list of all the symptoms: 'Do you have fever? Do you have sweating?'" he said. "It's great that they do the checks."

Kirkham said he's relieved to finally be home and in good health after the nearly month-long ordeal. "We closed the book. That was our final chapter and now we're just going to move on."

Vaughan, meanwhile, continues to monitor his father in-law's health from Canada.

"The priority is getting him home," he said.

Global Affairs said Thursday it continues to monitor 34 Canadian passengers and crew members on four cruise ships.

While cruise companies suspended operations in mid-March, some ships have struggled to find a place to dock to allow passengers to disembark and return home.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: