PANAMA CITY: Four passengers have died on a cruise ship off the Pacific coast of Panama with more than 130 others aboard suffering from influenza-like symptoms, at least two of whom have coronavirus, the vessel's operator said on Friday (Mar 27).
Holland America Line said in a statement 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.
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 telephone.
A ship official told passengers on Friday morning via a public address system that one guest 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.
Rae said the announcement was the first time he had been made aware of the deaths on the 238m vessel.
The Zaandam departed Argentina on Mar 7 and had been scheduled to end its journey in San Antonio, Chile on Mar 21. Nobody has disembarked from the ship since it docked in Punta Arenas on the southern coast of Chile nearly two weeks ago.
On board are 1,243 guests and 586 crew, as well as four doctors and four nurses, the cruise operator said.
The ship official said a number of patients were tested on Thursday after the ship received virus testing kits.
"We are still seeing both guests and crew with symptoms report to the medical center, and the situation continues to grow more challenging each day," the official 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, granddaughter of a 90-year-old man and 75-year-old woman on board, wrote on Twitter. Johnson said she was especially worried about her grandmother, a Type 1 diabetic.
Rae, who said he and others had informed the UK government of their predicament via email, said he understood 229 British passengers were on board. Other guests included Americans, Canadians and Australians as well as Germans, Italians, French, Spanish and New Zealanders, he said.
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 onboard 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 tests made on board would mean putting the ship in quarantine, he said.
Holland America aims soon to start transferring groups of healthy passengers to the Zaandam's sister ship, the Rotterdam, which is now alongside the vessel in Panamanian waters.
Praising the staff as "brilliant", Rae said that since guests went into isolation on Sunday, food was being delivered to cabins three times a day by crew members wearing masks.
"It's all very carefully handled," he said. "They move away, we bring in the food."