4 passengers die on stranded cruise ship carrying 247 Canadians

Four passengers have died on board a Holland America Line cruise ship currently sailing off the coast of Panama. Many other passengers on the ship have flu-like symptoms and two have tested positive for COVID-19. 

A total of 247 Canadians are among the 1,243 passengers on the Zaandam, which is also carrying 586 crew members — one of whom is Canadian, according to Global Affairs Canada. 

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

Holland America — which first announced some of its passengers had fallen ill with “influenza-like symptoms” last Sunday — has since reported that a total of 138 passengers and crew aboard the ship have sought medical care.

The cruise line didn’t provide a cause of death for the four passengers, but stated that the ship tested a number of patients with respiratory symptoms for COVID-19 on Thursday, with two individuals testing positive.

“It really drives home how lethal this disease is,” said passenger David Kirkham, of Victoria, who believes the deaths are related to COVID-19. “It’s quite possible more will die.”

Kirkham, 68, is travelling with his wife, Norma. She said the captain announced the news to passengers on Friday afternoon. 

“We received very sad news,” the 63-year-old said. “Four guests have died: one overnight, two yesterday and one the day before. This has hit us very hard.… This is shocking.”

A total of 247 Canadians are among the 1,243 passengers on the Zaandam, which also has 586 crew members. (Holland America Line)

The news has frightened and surprised many Canadian passengers aboard the ship, which has been seeking a place to dock since cutting short its South American cruise on March 14 in a bid to allow passengers to fly home amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Joiner, 59, said his wife Anna has now fallen sick. “She has been given sedatives. She is finding it difficult,” he said.

Joiner also said passengers continue to report to the ship’s medical centre with symptoms. 

No firm plans

The Zaandam began its South American cruise on March 7 and had initially planned to dock 10 days ago in Punta Arenas, Chile to let passengers off early. However, the country refused to allow passengers to disembark.

The ship is now hoping to secure passage through the Panama Canal in order to dock in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by the end of the month. Panama has currently closed its borders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In its latest statement Friday, Holland America said “the onward plan” is still being finalized. 

David Kirkham fears the ship won’t be able to pass through the canal or find a place to dock now that some passengers are confirmed to have COVID-19. “Who’s going to take us?” he said. “We don’t know where we’ll end up.”

Holland America said it plans to transfer healthy passengers to its sister ship, the Rotterdam, which is currently with the Zaandam. Priority will be given to passengers over the age of 70 who have an inside cabin, the company said. 

Any guests who are currently ill and all crew will remain on board the Zaandam.

The company said healthy passengers have been asked to stay in their rooms and ill individuals are in isolation.

“All guests and crew received face masks yesterday and were provided with instructions on when and how to wear them,” said Holland America.

CBC News reached out to the Canadian government for comment Friday but hasn’t yet received a reply.

On Thursday, before the four deaths were announced, Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that it was aware of the situation and is working with Holland American to ensure that Canadian passengers can safely return home. 

“We are doing everything we can to provide assistance under these unprecedented circumstances,” GAC spokesperson Barbara Harvey said in a statement.

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