Canadians remain stranded on cruise ship
Nearly 100 Canadians remain behind on a cruise ship where four passengers died amid a COVID-19 outbreak after healthy passengers were transferred to a new ship in a desperate bid to find a port willing to let them dock.
Passengers showing respiratory symptoms had to stay on the MS Zaandam while passengers who passed their health screening were transferred to its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, on Sunday.
While 150 Canadians made it aboard the Rotterdam as the ships were anchored at the mouth of the Panama Canal, 97 Canadian passengers and one Canadian crew member had to stay behind during the coronavirus pandemic, the Holland America cruise line told the National Post Monday.
Both vessels are now heading north after special humanitarian approval to transit the Panama Canal.
Their final destination remains uncertain, however, as the cruise line begs for “compassion and humanity” from a U.S. port to let them dock and unload the 1,243 passengers.
“No guests who had any respiratory symptoms in the last ten days were transferred, and no Zaandam crew were transferred to Rotterdam,” Holland America said in a statement.
In total, 797 passengers were moved to the Rotterdam, which has 645 crew members aboard; 446 passengers remain on the Zaandam with 602 crew members. On Zaandam, there are four doctors and four nurses and the Rotterdam has two doctors and four nurses.
“The primary purpose of the transfer was to balance the workload between the two ships and to provide immediate relief to the service staff on Zaandam, which has fewer crew members working at this time,” the company said.
“The two ships will remain together for the rest of the journey. Guests on both ships will remain in their staterooms until disembarkation.”
A total of 73 guests and 116 crew members on Zaandam reported influenza-like illness symptoms by Sunday, but the number of passengers remaining on board suggest some symptoms are more widespread.
The Zaandam became stranded at sea on its South American itinerary when ports started turning them away when the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic.
“We greatly appreciate this humanitarian consideration and the compassion shown for our guests and crew by the government of Panama and the Panama Maritime Authority,” Holland America, the Seattle-based cruise line said in a statement Sunday. “We are also thankful for the support of the various embassies that are partnering with us to help get their citizens home as quickly as possible.
“We are still finalizing the details for where and when our guests will disembark, and are asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for our arrival.”
François-philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, thanked his counterpart in Panama for assistance in arranging special passage through the canal that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said.
“We are aware of 247 Canadian passengers and one Canadian crew member on the MS Zaandam cruise ship,” GAC said in an update Sunday. None of the dead were Canadian. “We continue to engage with the passengers and Holland America regarding these ships.”
The Zaandam’s cruise was originally scheduled to end in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, on April 7 before being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
There was anxiety among the passengers at first, several Canadian passengers said, but with no sign of illness aboard, life on the luxury liner continued close to normal. That ended last week when passengers and members of the crew started reporting flu-like symptoms. Passengers were confined to their typically small cabins and issued face masks, Thursday. Holland America confirmed two passengers tested positive for COVID-19 and “four older guests” had died on Friday.
The confirmed presence of COVID-19 interrupted the plan to rush through the Panama Canal to reach a U.S. port.
On Friday, the Panama Canal Authority said the Zaandam, which arrived in Panamanian waters that day, “had to comply with the regulations on health and prevention of contagious diseases” before it could transit the canal.
“If a vessel has individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 on board, it cannot make any port operations or transit the Canal,” the authority said in an email to the Post Friday.
The reasons, the agency said, was to protect the canal operations and the safety of its workers, since it is not just a case of waving ships through the narrow passage.
“All ships transiting the Panama Canal require personnel, including line handlers, boarding officers, and Panama Canal pilots, to board the ship throughout the transit in order to ensure a safe passage throughout the waterway.
“These protocols are in place to safeguard our customers and workforce.”
On the weekend, however, the canal authority relented.
Meanwhile, the MS Maasdam, another Holland America ship also stuck without a port, docked in San Diego, Calif., on Thursday with 834 passengers. None were reporting illness.
All 244 Canadian passengers on the Maasdam disembarked and were able to board flights to Canada over the weekend, according to GAC.
“We recommend that Canadians currently on cruise ships continue to follow up with cruise line officials in order to stay aware of the latest information about docking and departing,” the government’s statement said.
“Once the cruise line has made these arrangements, passengers may then be able to explore departure options to return home. For the time being, we ask Canadian travellers aboard cruise ships to remain patient and to follow the advice from health officials.”