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'This is now a humanitarian issue': Holland America ship remains stranded off Panama

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Sunday Update: The two cruise ships were eventually granted passage through the Panama Canal and are presumably on their way to Florida.

Original Story Below:
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SEATTLE -- A Holland America ship that has lost four passengers due to illness and has dozens more presenting flu-like symptoms still can not find a spot to dock and transfer both their sick and healthy passengers home.

The M/V Zaandam remains anchored off the Panama coast with still no nearby country allowing it to offload passengers, according to company officials.

As of Friday, COVID-19 testing has revealed two passengers have tested positive, a company spokesperson said. Meanwhile, four elderly passengers have died, and 53 guests and 85 crew members have reported flu-like symptoms. The ship has 1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board.

One of those crew members is former KOMO News Meteorologist Seth Wayne, who is now a Brand Ambassador for Holland America.

"It's been a sad day. We woke up to the news that four of our guests have passed away," Wayne told KOMO News via video conference Friday.

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The Zaandam had been sailing off the coast of South America for several days after its 14-day cruise became interrupted amid the global shutdown from the coronavirus.

"When we left (on March 7), it wasn't a global pandemic," Wayne said. "One day we were welcomed in a port, and the next day we weren't welcomed in the port, and then we weren't welcomed in the next port... and the next, and the next..."

Left with no South or Central American port that would allow the ship to dock, the ship has been stuck in a days-long limbo.

"This is turning into more of fear than facts," Wayne said. "And we're sort of caught in the middle."

Wayne said they've all been in quarantine in their cabins since the first illnesses were reported and only 4% of their guests are sick. But governments up and down their route are still rejecting their pleas to dock and let their passengers get home.

"A lot of us our healthy and a lot of us are wanting to get home, and unfortunately the governments in so many countries are not allowing that to happen," Wayne said.

In the meantime, Holland America has sent a sister ship, the Rotterdam, to meet up with the Zaandam off the coast of Panama with a plan in motion to offload the healthy passengers there and sail them back to the United States. Those passengers must pass a health screen and priority is being given to passengers over 70 in an inside cabin.

Those who are sick or who have been directly exposed to sick passengers will remain on the Zaandam, officials said, adding all guests were provided face masks on Thursday and instructed when, where and how to use them.

But it's still unclear where either ship will go. An attempt to gain passage through the Panama Canal and sail to Florida has been rejected by the Panamanian government.

Wayne says the ship was allowed to take on extra fuel and food supplies in Chile a few days ago.

"We are staying well fed, staying as happy as we can possibly be quarantined in our rooms," Wayne said. "They've given us entertainment options, counseling, and have opened up phone lines so guests can talk to families. We're being taken care of and we're trying to make the best that we know how when these times are tough."

In the meantime, extra medical staff is on board to treat those sick and the company is still working the phones to try and open up an option to allow passengers to disembark.

"This is truly now a humanitarian issue," Wayne said. "We are caught in the middle and we need people and government officials to help us out."

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