Coronavirus-hit cruise ship carrying 248 Canadians allowed to pass through Panama Canal

The Canadian government says it is working with its counterparts in Panama and the cruise line to get more than 200 Canadian passengers home.

No passengers or crew members will be allowed to disembark in Panama

The Zaandam cruise ship is pictured anchored in the bay of Panama City on Friday. (Arnulfo Franco/The Associated Press)

A cruise ship stuck off Panama's Pacific coast after four passengers died and more than 130 others developed influenza-like symptoms, including at least two with COVID-19, will be allowed to proceed through the Panama Canal, the government said Saturday.

The 238-metre vessel can now continue its trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but Panama's government underscored that no passengers or crew members would be allowed to set foot on Panamanian soil.

"Panama will guarantee bio-security measures to protect the personnel who will participate in this manoeuvre and thus safeguard the health of Panamanians," the government said in a statement.

The Canadian government said 247 passengers and one crew member onboard are citizens, and that none of the dead are Canadian. 

Ottawa also said it is working with its counterparts in Panama and the cruise line to repatriate the Canadians.

The Zaandam, which was previously on a South American cruise, was denied access to the Panama Canal for sanitary reasons, leaving passengers and crew wondering when they would get home.

Passengers look out from the Zaandam cruise ship on Friday. (Arnulfo Franco/Associated Press)

In the meantime, Holland America, which is owned by Carnival Corp., sent the Rotterdam sister ship to the area as Panama's Maritime Authority said 401 asymptomatic passengers would be allowed to transfer from the Zaandam to the other ship.

There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew aboard the Zaandam, as well as four doctors and four nurses, the cruise operator has said.

Throughout the day, passengers on the Zaandam have been boarding onto tenders pulled up on the port side of the ship for transfer to the Rotterdam, a passenger told Reuters.

'We are in a petri dish of sickness'

CBC News spoke with several distraught Canadian passengers on board by a combination of phone, email and WhatsApp on Friday, as phone service from the ship was intermittent.

Passengers are currently confined to their cabins and have been given face masks as a safety precaution.

"It really drives home how lethal this disease is," said passenger David Kirkham of Victoria.

Chris and Anna Joiner of Orleans, Ont., are also aboard the ship.

"We are slowly losing hope that we will ever dock and get off this ship," said Chris Joiner. "We need the Canadian government to step up to the plate and help us."

He said passengers continue to report to the ship's medical centre with symptoms.

Passengers Chris and Anna Joiner sent a message to the Canadian government asking for help while stuck on board a cruise ship that has had four deaths. (Submitted by Chris Joiner)

"What's really hard on us now is the stress that we're under," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen next."

Anna Joiner said she has developed a cold but was unable to get tested on board for COVID-19.

"We are in a petri dish of sickness," she said. 

    With files from The Canadian Press and CBC's Sophia Harris

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