A pair of cruise ships carrying dozens of people with flu-like symptoms, including at least nine who have tested positive for COVID-19, were expected to arrive off the coast of Florida early Thursday.
It’s still unclear whether passengers will be allowed to disembark.
The illnesses began aboard the MS Zaandam, which set out from Buenos Aires for a South America cruise on March 7, with 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board. The voyage was supposed to end in San Antonio, Chile, on March 21 but the vessel has remained at sea since the Chilean government refused it permission to dock and disembark. At least four people on board the ship have died and several have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Holland America Line, which operates the cruise.
Last week, the cruise line announced plans to move “healthy” people from the MS Zaandam to another one of its ships, the MS Rotterdam. Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford said in a video message that he wanted to dispel the myth of a healthy ship versus a sick one, explaining that the intention is for the two cruises to work in tandem so that they can reduce the workload on each vessel, “create maximum flexibility” and move passengers that have been stuck self-isolating in inside cabins for a week to cabins that have access to light and fresh air.
There are now 442 guests and 603 crew aboard the MS Zaandam, and 808 guests and 583 crew on the MS Rotterdam, including a total of 311 U.S. citizens. Since March 22, at least 97 guests — 83 on Zaandam and 14 on Rotterdam — and 136 crew — all on Zaandam — have presented with influenza-like symptoms, according to Holland America Line.
“We have seen a significant decline in the presentation of new cases on Zaandam, with only one new case reporting in the past 24 hours,” the cruise line said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
Both ships are heading to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after passing through the Panama Canal. The government of Panama also denied approval to disembark guests.
Holland America Line said it hopes to disembark the nearly 1,200 guests on the two ships who are “well” and fit to travel per guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guests fit for travel will be transferred straight from the vessels to flights for onward travel home, the majority on charter flights.
“Out of an abundance of caution, these guests will be transported in coaches that will be sanitized, with limited person-to-person contact and while wearing masks,” the cruise line said in its statement Wednesday. “These provisions well exceed what the CDC have advised is necessary for their travel. Guests have not left the ship since March 14 and have self-isolated in their staterooms since March 22.”
The approximately 45 guests who still have “mild illness” and are unfit to travel at this time will continue to isolate on board until recovered, according to Holland America Line. For the estimated less than 10 people who need immediate critical care shoreside, the cruise line has secured approval from a local health hospital in Florida’s Broward County that has agreed to accept the patients for treatment.
“This small number is the only group that will require any support from medical resources in Broward County,” the cruise line said, “and is necessary to prevent further harm to their health.”
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said it would be a mistake to bring the passengers ashore because the state’s hospitals need to be saved for residents and not “foreign nationals.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Holland America Line was still awaiting confirmation from Florida authorities to disembark the guests in Fort Lauderdale. Both ships will remain outside U.S. waters while awaiting clearance to enter.
“Holland America Line calls for compassion and reason in the review and approval of our disembarkation plan by Florida officials,” the cruise line said, “and we are grateful for those that have supported our efforts. ”