4 dead on cruise ship stranded near Panama, 247 Canadians also on board

The Zaandam cruise ship, carrying dozens of guests with flu-like symptoms, arrives to the bay of Panama City, seen from Isla de Taboga, Panama, Friday, March 27, 2020, amid the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus. Once the vessel reaches Panamanian waters, health authorities are expected to board the ship to test passengers and decide whether it can cross the Panama Canal to head on towards Fort Lauderdale. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco).

Four people have died on a Holland America Line cruise ship stranded near Panama after the cruise line reported dozens of passengers and crew experiencing flu-like symptoms.

One day earlier, the cruise line said it tested “a number” of people for COVID-19. Two tested positive.

There are 247 Canadian citizens on board, a spokesperson confirmed to Global News.

“Holland America Line can confirm that four older guests have passed away on Zaandam,” a statement from the company Friday reads. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and we are doing everything we can to support them during this difficult time.”

There was no information provided on the exact cause of death. A government source confirmed to Global that no Canadians are among the four dead.

The federal government is working with the Panamanian government and Holland America, which operates the Zaandam, in an effort to get the Canadians home.

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“We continue to engage with the Panamanian government, and are working with Holland America on their plans to get passengers home,” Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Angela Savard told The Canadian Press.

READ MORE: Why quarantining passengers on a cruise ship was a bad idea

The ship has been at sea since March 14, after Chile refused it permission to dock and disembark passengers as much of the world grapples with containing the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

The ship, the Zaandam, set out on March 7 from Buenos Aires with 1,243 guests and 586 crew. It was due to finish in San Antonio, Chile on March 21.

Guests were placed under lockdown in their staterooms on March 22 after a number of guests and crew members came down with flu-like symptoms.

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Since then, a total of 53 guests and 85 crew members have reported to the ship’s medical centre with “influenza-like illness symptoms.”

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Chris Joiner, 59, a retiree from Ottawa, told Reuters the cruise had turned into a “nightmare.”

He was worried that he and his wife, Anna, also 59, would be forced to stay aboard for an undetermined time because she had a cough, after cruise operators said they would soon transfer healthy passengers to the Zaandam’s sister ship, the Rotterdam, which is now alongside the vessel in Panamanian waters.

READ MORE: Coronavirus RNA detected on cruise ship 17 days after passengers left: CDC report

“We’re isolated. We’re stuck on this ship. We can’t go anywhere because we’re not healthy, I guess,” said Joiner, who took a selfie in his cabin with a piece of paper on which he had written “HELP US” in a bid for attention from the media and the Canadian government.

Ian Rae, a London-based Scotsman on the ship with his wife, said most passengers were coping “pretty well” despite being in self-isolation since last Sunday.

“It’s probably not an awful lot worse than the people back in the UK or anywhere else in the world at the moment,” Rae, a 73-year-old grandfather of four, told Reuters by phone.

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Rae, who said he and others had informed the UK government of their predicament via email, said he understood there were 229 British passengers on board. Other guests included Americans, Canadians and Australians as well as Germans, Italians, French, Spanish and New Zealanders, he said.

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Relatives are getting nervous.

“It’s terrifying that no plan has been made for them and there are British nationals on this ship who need help,” Hayley Johnson, whose 90-year-old grandfather and 75-year-old grandmother are on board, wrote on Twitter. Johnson said she was especially worried about her grandmother, a Type 1 diabetic.

READ MORE: 4,000 Canadians still on board cruise ships amid coronavirus pandemic

All ports along the Zaandam’s South American route were closed to cruise ships, Holland America said.

Some 53 guests and 85 crew have reported to the ship’s medical center with flu-like symptoms, it added.

“If they can just find a port to dock it would be a huge relief. The fact they’re just sitting on board a ship, it’s like they’re sitting ducks,” said Neil Bedford, whose British parents, aged 65 and 63, are on board.

Panama’s health ministry has not given permission for the ship to pass through the waterway, said Ricaurte Vasquez, the Panama Canal Authority’s administrator. Positive coronavirus tests made on board would mean putting the ship in quarantine, he said.

With files from Reuters

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