Coronavirus-hit cruise ships dock in Florida as yet more wait at sea

The Zaandam, the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship that spent 12 days stranded at sea with no ports willing to let it dock, has pulled into Fort Lauderdale harbour to the cheers of port workers.

The warm welcome on Thursday night was followed by a procession of medical personnel in blue and yellow plastic protective gear as they scrambled to take critically ill patients down the gangplank and into ambulances.

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Four people died onboard the ship including a 75-year-old British man, and it had been turned away from 11 countries since it last stopped in South America on 14 March. Port documents indicated that 13 more passengers and one crew member were so critically ill that they would require immediate hospitalisation.

The ship’s sister vessel, the Rotterdam, met up with the Zaandam in Panama to take some of the healthier passengers but it too ended up at the dock in Florida on Thursday with people ill on board.

Yet another cruise ship with sick passengers, the Coral Princess, was waiting to come into Fort Lauderdale in the coming days. The ship, owned by the world’s biggest cruise operator, Carnival, was turned away from Brazil and other South American ports nearly two weeks ago. The company said it had 6,000 passengers stuck at sea.

Florida politicians initially wanted to turn the Zaandam and Rotterdam away. The state’s governor, Ron Desantis, said at one point that there were many “foreigners” onboard and he didn’t want sick patients “dumped” on south Florida. But after intervention by Donald Trump, Florida officials signed off on a strengthened safety plan from the cruise operators.

Among the 1,200 passengers were 305 Americans, 295 Canadians, 229 from the UK and 131 Australians.

“We just disembarked and are in a charter vehicle heading home,” said Laura Gabaroni, a Florida resident, who with her husband Juan Huergo was one of the first passengers let off. We are “excited and relieved to be on our way home. We are also happy to hear that our fellow passengers who needed medical attention are getting the treatment to help their recovery.”

Like many other passengers Gabaroni praised the crew members, 143 of whom had contracted influenza-like illness. None of the crew were being allowed to leave the ship, including 50 who were still experiencing symptoms.

“Our deepest gratitude goes to the crew of the Zaandam and Rotterdam, who kept us safe and comfortable during an extraordinarily difficult time and who worked tirelessly, risking their own health and wellbeing,” said Gabaroni.

The ships’ operator, Holland America, said that following arrival in Port Everglades all guests would be health screened and cleared for entry by US Customs and Border Protection.

Most passengers would be taken by bus directly to chartered planes and flown to their home countries. But about 25 guests with mild illness were being required to stay onboard until they recovered.

“I am very happy to share this good news with you,” the captain of one of the ships announced to passengers, as the two vessels began to pull into port. “It has been a long journey. Your journey home is ready to begin and we will give you an update on the next steps.”

The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the Australian passengers would be repatriated within 24 to 48 hours.

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“I’m happy. These people need to get off this ship and go home,” said the Broward county commissioner Barbara Sharief, who said the plan was held up by the need to get agreement from the company to take responsibility for those needing hospitalisation. “I’m glad we could help them.”

The cruise departed on 7 March from Buenos Aires, Argentina and many passengers were scheduled to disembark on 21 March in San Antonio, Chile. It was initially supposed to come into Fort Lauderdale on the final leg of its cruise on 6 April. Passengers were isolated in their cabins after influenza-like illness was detected on the ship on 22 March.

The Fort Lauderdale mayor, Dean Trantalis, said the safety procedures that Holland American ultimately agreed to follow were “a far cry” better than it had originally proposed.

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But he noted that more cruise ships loaded with passengers were waiting to come into Fort Lauderdale in the next few days – including the Coral Princess. Carnival announced on Thursday that passengers and crew also had tested positive for Covid-19.

“Of course it’s a concern,” said Trantalis, who originally opposed the Zaandam coming into Fort Lauderdale. “We have no information about the conditions of the passengers on the Coral Princess just yet. But we will use our influence with the county to make sure that any ill passengers are properly isolated and quarantined.”

A financial filing by Carnival Corporation on Wednesday said there were still 6,000 cruise ship passengers stuck at sea on Carnival-owned cruise ships alone. “They are not the last ship,” said Trantalis. “I understand there are more ships out there behind them … So it’s a continuing dilemma.”

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