Four Dead, Two COVID-19 Cases Aboard Cruise Ship Zaandam

Zaandam (file image)

Published Mar 27, 2020 2:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

Four older passengers aboard the cruise ship Zaandam have passed away from unspecified causes and two others have tested positive for COVID-19, operator Holland America has confirmed.

The news was reported first by the American outlet Business Insider, which said that a crewmember aboard the cruise ship Rotterdam had leaked an onboard memo and an audio recording of an announcement made by the vessel's master. Rotterdam has rendezvoused with Zaandam off Panama in order to provide her with supplies, coronavirus test kits and medical personnel via ship-to-ship transfer.

Holland America confirmed many of the story's details in a statement. The operator said that its response plan is to transfer groups of healthy Zaandam guests to Rotterdam via ship to ship transfer, using protocols developed by the CDC to identify those who are not ill. Priority will be given to those with interior staterooms and those over 70. The guests evacuated to Rotterdam will be quarantined until disembarkation. 

Those who are identified as ill or who came into close contact with an ill person will remain aboard the Zaandam, along with all members of Zaandam's crew. 

The screening process for the transfer faces a unique challenge: COVID-19 is known to infect some patients without causing easy-to-spot clinical signs of illness. According to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of the 700-plus people aboard Diamond Princess who tested positive for COVID-19 did not have symptoms. Likewise, a prominent peer-reviewed study of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China concluded that most cases of the disease (over 80 percent) were mild enough that they went undiagnosed and undetected - and that these cases contributed subtantially to the spread of the infection. 

The final destination for both ships is still being finalized. Holland America's objective is to sail Zaandam to Fort Lauderdale, Florida via the Panama Canal, and it said Friday that it continues to work with the Panamanian authorities on approval for a canal transit. Rotterdam is slated to head for San Diego to offload healthy passengers, according to the memo. 

In a statement Friday afternoon, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said that it would not allow Zaandam to pass through. "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 ACP wrote. "All ships transiting the Panama Canal require personnel, including line handlers, boarding officers, and Panama Canal pilots, to board the ship throughout the transit in order to ensure a safe passage throughout the waterway. These protocols are in place to safeguard our customers and workforce."

Zaandam set sail on March 7 on a South American itinerary. She was refused permission to disembark passengers in Punta Arenas on March 14 due to Chile's recently-enacted border closure. At that point in her voyage, there were no known COVID-19 cases on board. Holland America reported March 22 that 42 individuals had developed flu-like symptoms.