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4 passengers dead, 2 test positive for COVID-19 on cruise ship stranded off the coast of Panama

A Holland America cruise ship in Ketchikan, Alaska, in June 2015.
A Holland America cruise ship in Ketchikan, Alaska, in June 2015.Taylor Balkram

Four passengers have died on a cruise ship that has been unable to find a port to disembark its passengers, operator Holland America Line said Friday. It is currently located off the coast of Panama with a plan to head to Fort Lauderdale.

People aboard the Zaandam cruise ship started reporting flu-like symptoms over the weekend. Two people on the ship have tested positive so far for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. According to the company, 138 people on the ship were sick as of early Friday - 53 guests and 85 crew.

It wasn't yet clear what the four passengers died of; the ship only just got access to coronavirus tests.

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Passengers who are not ill will be transferred to another of the company's ships, Rotterdam, where they will have to stay in their staterooms. A time frame was not available, but the first to move to the other ship will be those who are older than 70 and passengers who are in inside staterooms without access to the outdoors.

Those who are showing symptoms, or their close contacts, will stay on Zaandam with all crew. There are four doctors and four nurses on the ship; Rotterdam has two doctors and four nurses.

Rotterdam met up with Zaandam Thursday night while both were at anchor off Panama to deliver medical supplies and bring more medical staff to the ship.

Like most of the cruise industry, Holland America, which is owned by Carnival Corp., suspended operations of its global fleet on March 13 for a month, but still had to get its ships back to port. Zaandam's voyage left Buenos Aires on March 7; the company planned for passengers to disembark on March 16 in Punta Arenas, but the Chilean government would not allow anyone off.

The last time anyone had been off the Zaandam was March 14 in Punta Arenas. Passengers have been confined to their rooms and getting food delivered since Sunday, when 42 people reported to the medical center with flu-like symptoms. By Tuesday, that number had risen to 77.

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Holland America is working to get permission for Zaandam to sail through the Panama Canal and head to Fort Lauderdale, but it's still not clear if they will be allowed to dock there. There are more than 1,800 people on board.

Already worried by the uncertainty around the ship's plans and news of sick passengers, family members of those on board were shaken by Friday's developments.

Hayley Johnson said her grandparents were on the ship; because her grandmother has a cough, she said, they will not be allowed to leave the Rotterdam.

"There is no clear plan as yet as to how to manage this, and the uncertainty is making us all the more scared," she said in an email. "In light of the four deaths already, Holland America need to get everyone off this ship and to shore safely, as a humanitarian act if nothing else."

Lisa Bodley spoke to her brother, Andy Vinson, Friday morning after the captain informed passengers about the four deaths. She said her brother, a retired hospital administrator who also served as a Naval officer, was concerned that more passengers were at risk.

“He said everybody’s beginning to really freak out,” she said.