Federal government trying to bring Canadians home from coronavirus-infected cruise

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that there were 248 Canadians on board the ship. Global Affairs Canada says there are 247.

It should have been the trip of a lifetime for Ottawa residents Catherine McLeod and Paul Innes, but it has turned into a nightmare as they remain trapped on a cruise ship where COVID-19 has taken hold and four people have died.

McLeod and Innes left Ottawa and boarded a cruise in early March, before the spread of novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, and they now find themselves without a clear way to get home.

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

The MS Zaandam is anchored off the coast of Panama, and no one can leave because no country will accept them. Holland America, the company that owns the ship, said two people on board have tested positive for COVID-19 while 53 passengers and 85 crew have flu-like symptoms.

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A government source told Global News that none of four who succumbed to the illness are Canadian.

There are 1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board and more tests are being done every day, the company said.

Among them are McLeod and her husband, retired teachers. In an email to The Canadian Press, McLeod said what had been a mostly enjoyable trip was turned on its head last weekend.

“The boom hit last Sunday when we were asked to return to our staterooms and not exit,” McLeod recounted. “Many passengers and crew members had reported to sick bay with flu-like symptoms.”

That’s where the couple have been — in their room awaiting news of a way out — ever since.

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“The first few days we hoped it was just the flu,” McLeod said. “We were still hopeful that we would get through the Panama Canal and dock in Fort Lauderdale. Then that hope was destroyed when Panama would not allow us passage.”

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Email is the only way to communicate with family, said Patricia Morrell, one of the couple’s children.

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“We have good contact with them, but they’re really frustrated because the information I’m giving them is different from the information on the ship,” Morrell said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Why quarantining passengers on a cruise ship was a bad idea

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday federal officials are working Panama to resolve the matter.

“We know this is a very difficult situation for them, for their families,” Trudeau said.

“I can tell you that the entirety of Global Affairs Canada employees are single-mindedly focused on this herculean task of bringing Canadians home any way we can, and much of it involves negotiating with other countries to get permissions to cruise ships to dock, permissions for airplanes to lift off from the country where they’ve closed air spaces.”

Michael Kasprow just wants his mother off the cruise ship and back home.

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Julie Kasprow, 81, of Thornhill, Ont., left for the 30-day cruise in early March — before the Canadian government warned against travelling on cruise ships due to fears of contracting the emerging coronavirus that has spread around the world.

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“I just want her home in her stupid chair for 14 days so we have everybody in the same area and I can talk to her from the end of the driveway,” said Kasprow, who lives in nearby Toronto.

Like Innes and McLeod, Kasprow’s mother is healthy and effectively shut inside her room with her friend, he said.

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

But her anxiety — and his — has grown.

“My mom’s demeanour certainly changed in the past 24 hours from, ‘This will be OK,’ to hearing news that people on board had passed away,” Kasprow said.

“My mom is my superhero and is incredibly circumspect when it comes to things like that, but it’s really stressful and scary to her, and this definitely rocked her a bit.”

The crew checked on her yesterday and plans to move the healthy and asymptomatic to its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, that recently anchored nearby.

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But Morrell said her parents — 68 and 69 years old — don’t fit the criteria for moving to the ship, which is reserved for those 70 and older and in good health.

So Innes described her daily routine — washing their hands every hour, waiting for meals to be left at the door. The couple has secured a set of cutlery and glasses they keep in the room and they try to wipe down everything that comes in.

McLeod said news of the deaths have left her feeling powerless.

READ MORE: Live updates on the coronavirus pandemic in Canada

“I fluctuate from being thankful that we are in a balcony room to thinking that I will never get the hell home to my kids and grandkids,” McLeod wrote. “I just hope and pray that no others die and that someone lets us dock and we can board a plane ASAP.”

Holland America said all ports along the ship’s route are closed, and it is working with the Panamanian authorities to get approval to pass through the Panama Canal en route to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said medical supplies were transferred to the ship and discussions are ongoing with the Panamanian government and Holland America on plans to get passengers home.

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By Saturday evening EST, the Panamanian government had granted permission for the cruise ship to proceed through the Panama Canal.

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

“Panama will guarantee biosecurity measures to protect the personnel who will participate in this maneuver and thus safeguard the health of Panamanians,” the government said in a statement to Reuters.

— With files from Global News, Reuters

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