Four passengers have died on board the MS Zaandam, a cruise ship now off the coast of Panama with dozens of guests suffering from influenza-like symptoms, at least two of whom have coronavirus, the vessel's operator said on Friday.
Holland America, owner of the MS Zaandam, which is carrying 1,243 guests and 586 crew, said two patients tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.
One day earlier, the cruise line said it tested "a number" of people for COVID-19.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and we are doing everything we can to support them during this hard time", Holland America Line said of the four who had died of undisclosed causes in a statement shared by spokesperson Erik Elvejord.
The ship was receiving medical supplies and medical personnel from another Holland America ship, the Rotterdam, and the company planned to begin transferring healthy passengers to that ship.
The bubble burst on Sunday when a number of passengers reported to the ship's medical centre with influenza-like illness symptoms.
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Only two known cases of minors dying from the disease in China, where the virus emerged late previous year , have been recorded. Confirmed cases in Los Angeles County have surged to 662, in part a reflection of increased testing.
He plans to transfer those passengers who have not been sick or exposed to someone who has been to Rotterdam, while leaving sick passengers and the entire crew aboard the Zaandam.
On Wednesday, the Minister of Health of Panama, Rosario Turner, had said that Zaandam could pass through the canal. Priority for the first guests to transfer will be given to those who are over 70.
Holland America sent another cruise liner, the Rotterdam, carrying COVID-19 test kits, supplies and relief staff to meet the Zaandam in Panamanian waters. Any guests who are now ill, or in isolation as a close contact, and all crew will remain on the Zaandam.
Zaandam was sailing a South America cruise that departed Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 and was originally scheduled to end at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21.
The operator has been trying to find a port to let its passengers disembark, but officials in Chile denied a request to let passengers off March 16 in Punta Arenas.
However, Holland America Line, along with major cruise lines worldwide, announced March 13 it would suspend cruise operations for at least 30 days and end its cruises in progress.