Holland America's MS Zaandam and MS Rotterdam cruise ships – one with ill people on board – have crossed the Panama Canal and are headed to Florida. But whether the coronavirus-infected ship and its sister vessel will be able to dock remains a question.
William Burke, chief maritime officer of Carnival Corp, which owns Holland America Line, said Tuesday during a Broward County Commission Meeting broadcast live on Vimeo that Port Everglades, where the line hopes to dock, is a "port of last resort."
Burke said the company intends to treat those who are sick on the ship unless things progress to the point where that is no longer possible.
While nine people on Holland America's MS Zaandam have tested positive for coronavirus, it is likely that many more on board the ship in limbo are infected.
"We're assuming people who get sick have COVID," Burke said.
Only 11 people total have been tested on the Zaandam, with nine rapid tests coming back positive. There are around 200 rapid tests available on the ship, which sometimes result in false-negatives, according to Burke.
Four elderly passengers on the Zaandam died, though the causes of death have not been disclosed. As of Tuesday, 83 guests and 117 crew members had reported flu-like symptoms. Symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are similar. The COVID-19 coronavirus has sickened more than 826,000 people and killed nearly 41,00 worldwide as of Tuesday afternoon. Of the symptomatic passengers who were tested, two tested positive for COVID-19.
Erik Elvejord, spokesperson for Holland America Line, said on Tuesday only 14 guests and one crew member were still showing symptoms.
That means "no more symptoms," Elvejord said in an email. "For example, if they had a cough or fever, they no longer have it."
All passengers remain in isolation, he said.
Andrea Bergmann Anderson, a passenger on the Zaandam told USA TODAY that on Monday, the ship was scheduled to anchor near San Andres Island, but instead carried on. A plane was to bring in medical supplies and medically evacuate two passengers but was denied permission to land by the Colombian government, she said.
Burke said Tuesday that there are six ventilators on the Zaandam and two on the Rotterdam in addition to two transport ventilators, oxygen tanks, nebulizers, infrared thermometers and more.
The cruise line said in a statement Thursday that there are four doctors and four nurses on board the Zaandam, and the Rotterdam is carrying two doctors and four nurses, the cruise line said.
Many of those who have become ill are crew members, Burke said. "Most of these crew members are relatively young and as a result they seem to weather the storm of the COVID better than some of the passengers and so the recovery rates have been very strong among them."
The crew, he said, have not been in conditions which would require a medical evacuation.
A docking plan in progress in Florida
The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that it's working with Holland America on a detailed docking plan that would require two ships carrying passengers and crew from the ill-fated cruise to handle all medical issues without impacting South Florida's already-stressed hospitals.
If a "unified command" of state, local and federal officials can't unanimously adopt the plan, they'll punt a decision to Washington, Coast Guard Captain Jo-Ann Burdian said.
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony called the decision a “humanitarian crisis” and asked commissioners not to vote based on emotion. Allowing the ship to dock here would burden the local healthcare system and put residents at risk of additional exposure, he warned.
“This ship has been turned away from several countries already. We are the United States of America and we have never turned away people in need or those that are sick but we are in some very, very critical circumstances where we as a county are going to have to determine are we willing to take on this responsibility.”
Before the commission met Tuesday, plans for docking were criticized.
Local officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis rebuked the plans for the ship to dock. The governor said he has been in contact with the Coast Guard and the White House about diverting the ship.
DeSantis said it would be “a mistake” to bring the cruise ship passengers into South Florida for treatment because the state already has a high, and growing, number of coronavirus infections. He said hospital beds need to be saved for residents and not “foreign nationals.”
"Gov. DeSantis does not want us to dock," Anderson told USA TODAY Tuesday. "I want to ask him how many people have to die before he will allow us to get people to the proper medical care."
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told USA TODAY that he was "disappointed" with what he was hearing out of Tuesday's meeting.
"I am seeing very little if any protocols putting into place," he said. "In 48 hours these ships are going to dock and we still do not have clear instruction on to triage these passengers when the ships dock."
He was concerned too, that the cruise line seemed willing to allow passengers to self-quarantine, including those who may be showing "partial symptoms" of coronavirus. "It's very disappointing to think this cruise line is not willing to go the extra step to make sure the folks disembarking are completely cured."
The saga of two ships
Holland America transferred healthy passengers to the Rotterdam, which met its sister ship, the Zaandam, with additional supplies, staff and test kits. The two ships are expected to remain together for the rest of the journey.
The Zaandam began its South American voyage from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 and was originally scheduled to end the sailing in San Antonio, Chile, March 21.
Contributing: The Associated Press