PANAMA CITY - Four passengers have died on a cruise ship off the Pacific coast of Panama and more than 130 others aboard are suffering from influenza-like symptoms, at least two of whom have the coronavirus, the vessel's operator said on Friday.
Holland America Line said in a statement that the MS Zaandam, previously on a South American cruise, was trying to transit the Panama Canal and make its way to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But Panama's government has denied it access to the canal for sanitary reasons, leaving passengers and crew wondering when they will get home.
Chris Joiner, 59, a retiree from Ottawa, Ontario, 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.
"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.
A ship official told passengers on Friday morning via a public address system that one guest had died several days ago, followed by two deaths on Thursday and another overnight, according to a recording heard by Reuters.
The four dead were "older guests," the operator said.
Passengers said the announcement was the first time they had been made aware of the deaths on the 238-meter vessel.
The Zaandam departed Argentina on March 7 and had been scheduled to end its journey in San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. Nobody has disembarked from the ship since it docked in Punta Arenas on the southern coast of Chile nearly two weeks ago.
There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board, as well as four doctors and four nurses, the cruise operator said.
Holland America is owned by Carnival Corp. Carnival's Princess Cruises earlier this month said it was suspending voyages for two months, after two of its ocean liners that had been quarantined became hotbeds for coronavirus infections.
The ship official said a number of patients were tested on Thursday after the ship received virus testing kits. In another public address on Friday afternoon, also heard by Reuters, he said the situation appeared to be improving.
"Some positive news, we have started to see a leveling off of guests reporting symptoms to the medical center," the official said, adding that staff had distributed one surgical mask per person. He urged passengers to keep them clean because he did not know when more would arrive.
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.
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.
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.
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.