Four passengers died aboard Holland America's "Zaandam" cruise ship and two people on board tested positive for the coronavirus, the company announced Friday.
The company, which is owned by parent Carnival Corp., did not say how many passengers and crew were tested but said 53 passengers and 85 crew members are exhibiting symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. There are more than 1,800 people aboard the ship, the company said, adding that four doctors and four nurses are also on board.
The Zaandam, which is currently anchored off the coast of Panama, is now at least the third Carnival-owned ship to become the site of a coronavirus outbreak.
The company said in a statement that "four older guests have passed away on Zaandam," but did not specify whether they died of COVID-19. "No one has been off the ship since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile."
Another Holland America ship, the "Rotterdam," met the Zaandam at sea on Thursday, the company said, adding that it plans to transfer healthy patients from one ship to the other before they are exposed to COVID-19. All passengers and crew currently exhibiting symptoms will remain on the Zaandam. The company said it is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The ship departed Buenos Aires on March 7 for a voyage that was meant to end in Chile on March 21. While the ship was at sea, Holland America "made the decision to suspend its global cruise operations for 30 days and end its current cruises in progress as quickly as possible so guests could return home."
However, the ship's passengers and crew were barred from disembarking in Chile and struggled to find any open ports amid the coronavirus pandemic. The company said the ship is now en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. However, representatives of the Panama Canal Authority said at first that the ship would not be allowed to pass through the canal with confirmed COVID-19 patients on board.
"Following protocol of Panama's Ministry of Health, if a vessel has individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 on board, it cannot make any port operations or transit the Canal," the Panama Canal Authority said in a statement. However, the organization said later on Saturday that the ship was granted approval to pass through the canal.
"The Panama Canal is preparing to facilitate the transit of the Zaandam through the waterway, after receiving authorization from Panama's Ministry of Health," the Panama Canal Authority said in a statement.
Perhaps no industry has been hit worse by the coronavirus pandemic than the cruise industry. Passengers have fallen ill and died as cruise ships become the sites of epidemics. In response, ports have denied vessels entry, travelers have canceled trips and the largest cruise companies in the world have suspended operations. The State Department even directed Americans to not travel by cruise ship amid the pandemic.
The CDC published a report earlier this week that said confirmed COVID-19 cases were traced back to at least 25 cruise ships around the world.
Of the largest cruise companies in the world, Carnival Corp. is perhaps the hardest hit. One of its ships, the Diamond Princess, had one of the largest clusters of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of China with more than 700 infected passengers and crew. The Diamond Princess and its 3,700 passengers and crew were quarantined at a Japanese port on Feb. 4 after a previous guest, who didn't have any symptoms while aboard the ship, tested positive for the virus.
At least eight people died after disembarking the ship. The Japanese government and other nations eventually evacuated their citizens from the ship.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials announced 21 confirmed COVID-19 cases on another Carnival-owned ship, the Grand Princess, which was moored off the coast of California. The ship had roughly 3,500 passengers and crew on board. After several days, California officials brought the ship to the Port of Oakland, where passengers disembarked and were transported to federal quarantine facilities.