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Canadian passengers on virus-stricken cruise finally headed for home

An ill-fated cruise that has experienced a COVID-19 outbreak and four deaths is finally coming to an end after politicians in Florida agreed to allow its passengers to disembark in Fort Lauderdale.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you how happy we are,” said passenger Chris Joiner, 59, of Orleans, Ont.

He and his wife, Anna are on board the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that has been sailing off the coast of South America and in the Caribbean for more than two weeks, looking for a place to dock.

“It’s been a long, long journey — the worst experience of our lives,” said Joiner. “Thank God it’s finally over.”

The Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam, are carrying 1,243 passengers, including 247 Canadians. The ships are set to arrive in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday. 

Local officials previously resisted allowing the two ships to dock as the Zaandam has confirmed COVID-19 cases on board and several passengers in need of hospital care. 

Four passengers on the Zaandam have died after the ship was hit with a flu-like illness in mid-March. Two of the deceased later tested positive for COVID-19, and Holland America has not yet said how the other two died. Several others on board have tested positive for disease that is caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Rotterdam and its crew joined the Zaandam last week, taking on more than half of its passengers to provide some relief. 

Passengers Chris and Anna Joiner sent a message to the Canadian government last week, asking for help while stuck on board the Zaandam, a cruise ship that recently experienced four deaths. (Submitted by Chris Joiner)

Several Canadian passengers told CBC News that they have been told to pack their bags, plus a carry-on bag for a couple days, as their larger luggage will be shipped home.

“Last night, we were told to pack so we knew something was looming,” said passenger Catherine McLeod, 69, from Nepean, Ont. “I’m relieved. I can’t wait to get back to my own bed.”

She said passengers have been told they will disembark, undergo a health screening and pass through U.S. customs, before returning to their ship for further instruction.

“I doubt very much if we leave today, because we’ve not been told anything,” said McLeod. “We’ve not been given flight numbers or anything like that.”

‘This has been a nightmare’

The Zaandam began its South American cruise on March 7, but the trip was cut short a week later, on March 14, amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. The plan was to allow passengers to quickly disembark and fly home. 

But Holland America struggled to secure a place to dock as nearby countries, such as Chile and Peru, closed their borders to foreigners in response to the pandemic.

Following the illness outbreak, the ship’s passengers were forced to spend the past 12 days confined to their cabins as a safety precaution. They’ve spent more than two weeks not knowing if and when they were going to get off the ship and be permitted to return home.

“This has been a nightmare from March 14, when the first port in Chile closed. [Then] all the ports in Chile closed and all of South America closed,” said Joiner. 

Holland America’s MS Zaandam is set to dock in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., later today, with many sick passengers on board. (Holland America Line)

After a series of rejections, the Zaandam and Rotterdam planned to dock in Fort Lauderdale. But as the COVID-19 outbreak in Florida worsened, concerns grew that the sick passengers would drain resources needed for local citizens.

“We have enough to deal with, with our folks in Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference on Monday. “We don’t want [the ships] to come in.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, advocated for the passengers and their swift return home.

“We have to help the people — they’re in big trouble no matter where they’re from,” he said during a news conference on Wednesday. “We have to do something; they’re dying and the governor knows that, too.”

Joiner said he was surprised but pleased when Trump weighed in on the matter.

“We never thought Mr. Trump would come to our rescue,” he said. “But, you know, you start to think, this is a humanitarian mission. Now we have people that are sick, including Americans.”

What happens now?

Holland America said it has secured approval from a local clinic that will treat the “estimated less than 10 people” on the Zaandam who require critical medical care.

About another 45 passengers suffering from “mild illness” will stay on board in isolation, until they recover and are approved for travel, the company said. 

At some point, healthy passengers will be put on sanitized buses and transferred mainly to charter flights for their journey home. Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Holland America, said Monday that the Canadian passengers would all be put on a flight to Toronto.

Joiner’s wife, Anna, has been suffering from a cold. But he’s hoping they both pass their health check and are able to head straight home.

Joiner said he’s been told that healthy passengers will be escorted directly to their chartered planes. He said he won’t feel full relief until he and Anna are buckled in their seats on that flight home.

“Until we’re on that plane … that’s when we can relax,” he said. 

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