Coronavirus: Holland America's Zaandam, Rotterdam get OK to transit Panama Canal for Florida

Passengers on Holland America’s MS Zaandam and MS Rotterdam may soon be home. 

The cruise line said late Sunday night the Panama Canal Authority has granted permission for the ships to transit the canal. Panama’s Ministry of Health gave its permission Saturday, expediting the ships’ return to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Four elderly passengers on the Zaandam have died of coronavirus; 73 guests and 116 crew members have reported flu-like symptoms associated with the virus that has sickened more than 723,000 people and killed nearly 34,000 worldwide as of Sunday night. Of the current symptomatic passengers who were tested, two tested positive for COVID-19. 

Holland America thanked the Panamanian authorities in a statement issued by spokeswoman Sally Andrews late Sunday night. “We are still finalizing the details for where and when our guests will disembark, and are asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for our arrival,” the statement continued. 

Holland has been transferring healthy passengers to the Rotterdam, and said that process was completed Sunday. It added the two ships will remain together for the rest of the journey.

“Guests on both ships will remain in their staterooms until disembarkation, and all necessary precautionary measures are being taken on both ships that have been developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the statement said.

Healthy, sick passengers had been separated between ships

By Friday afternoon, Holland America had transferred nearly 100 healthy passengers from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam.

A possible reason for dividing the passengers became clearer late Friday. 

Holland America said the Zaandam arrived in Panamanian waters on Friday and had since been following the protocol of Panama’s Ministry of Health, which originally stated that if a vessel has individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 on board, it cannot make any port operations or transit the Canal.

By transferring the healthy passengers transferred to the Rotterdam, they would have been more likely to obtain permission to transit the Panama Canal and continue their journey back to the U.S.

“Today we announced a plan to transfer groups of healthy Zaandam guests to Rotterdam, with strict protocols for this process developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” Holland America said in a statement released by spokesman Erik Elvejord. “Only those who have not been ill will be moved, and health screenings will be conducted before transferring.”

RELATED GALLERY: Coronavirus is changing everyday life across the US

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Slide 4 of 105: Geraldine "Gerrie" Mitchell, left, a resident at St. Joseph's Apartments, in Erie, Pa. is greeted by her granddaughter Jennifer Frick, of Erie, on March 29, 2020. It was Mitchell's 100th birthday. Mitchell is on a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus and can't have any visitors.

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Slide 10 of 105: A lone traveler enters an empty baggage claim area in Terminal Four at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix on Mar. 27, 2020. Airlines are reducing flights due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.
Slide 11 of 105: Teacher Julie Dannenmueller holds her sign for the students with the help of the Caped Crusader as teachers from Bluewater Elementary school have a parade through their school’s neighborhoods to sat “hi” to their homebound students on March 27, 2020 in Niceville, FL.
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Slide 18 of 105: Zach Tobler lifts weights in Zilker Park in Austin, Texas on Thursday March 26, 2020, the second day of the shelter in place order due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tobler said his gyms have closed but he is continuing to train for an upcoming bodybuilding competition.
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Slide 20 of 105: Tom Giesfeldt, of Milwaukee walks his his dogs in an empty Miller Park parking lot on what would have been the Milwaukee Brewers opening day game against the Chicago Cubs in Milwaukee on Thursday, March 26, 2020. The game was postponed due to the coronavirus.
Slide 21 of 105: Playground equipment is taped off to prevent use at Tysons Woods Park due to Coronavirus on March 26, 2020. Fairfax County, Virginia has closed some parks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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Slide 25 of 105: Lori Glazer of Ossining, N.Y. rides an empty Metro-North train in to New York City during the morning rush hour March 25, 2020. Glazer is a registered nurse in the Children's Hospital at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. She says that riding the empty trains is surreal and that it's scary going into the city because "you never know when you're going to get sick."
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Slide 28 of 105: A sign on the Southbound Lodge Freeway reminds people about the entry restrictions to Canada on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in Detroit. (Via OlyDrop)
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Slide 34 of 105: Palm Beach Atlantic University student Bella Langston of Dallas, Texas, carries here bedding to her car after students were asked to go home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in West Palm Beach, Fla on March 23, 2020.
Slide 35 of 105: People wait in line with appropriate social distancing for the 8 a.m. opening of the H-E-B in the Tanglewood Village Shopping Center in South Austin, Texas on Sunday March 22, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Slide 36 of 105: Joze Sola waves through a window to his 70-year-old mother, who lives at a senior citizens center in North Austin, Texas, on March 22, 2020.
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Slide 41 of 105: Times Square in Manhattan was far emptier than usual for a Saturday afternoon March 21, 2020. Coronavirus concerns have closed almost all businesses and kept most New Yorkers indoors.
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Slide 44 of 105: A sign at Ever Open Cafe references the statewide closure of restaurants in Fort Collins, Colo. on Friday, March 20, 2020. Gov.¤Jared Polis ordered all Colorado restaurants, bars and breweries close to public dining and drinking on Monday, March 16, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Bethany Baker/The Coloradoan via USA Today Network. (Via OlyDrop)
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Slide 47 of 105: A man walks through a nearly empty Oculus transportation hub in lower Manhattan on March 20, 2020 in New York City.
Slide 48 of 105: A man wears a mask on his face and a camera around his neck as he looks at a mostly empty Times Square in New York City, early Thursday evening, March 19 2020.
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Slide 77 of 105: People entering the White House grounds have temperatures checked by officials at the northwest gate along Pennsylvania Avenue due to the coronavirus emergency before being allowed into the grounds on March 16, 2020 at the White House in Washington, D.C.
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Slide 105 of 105: A staff member blocks the view as a person is taken by a stretcher to a waiting ambulance from a nursing facility where more than 50 people are sick and being tested for the COVID-19 virus, in Kirkland, Wash. on Feb. 29, 2020.

Andrea Bergmann Anderson, 63, a passenger from Ohio, was one of the passengers hoping to be given medical clearance to move to the Rotterdam. But first, she had to pass a questionnaire and temperature screening.

“I went to the medical center nine days ago because of the sinus infection and a cough,” she told USA TODAY Friday afternoon, adding she completed two rounds of antibiotics for the infection. Her husband, Rob, had also reported a cold to the medical center. She was feeling a bit nervous that she would not be allowed to transfer because of her visit to the center. “We filled out a medial form, and we were honest.”

Andrea and Rob were not among the passengers to get the green light to switch ships.

A little later on Friday afternoon, Andrea told USA TODAY that they had not passed the health screening. Neither had a fever at the time of the screening and neither was asked to take a test for COVID-19. But they were told they would be remaining on the Zaandam nonetheless.

“I am kind of depressed about this,” she said. “I had hoped that we could go and that the ship would be clear to disembark. We could have lied, but that would not be right.”

Andrea understood why she and Rob weren’t allowed to make the switch, in spite of her disappointment. “They have be careful.”

Zaandam caught at sea as cruise lines agreed to suspend operations 

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. But cruise ships that were at sea at the time that were stuck on the water. They have been denied ports and scrambled to get passengers disembarked amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

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.

No one has been off the ship since March 14 when it was in Punta Arenas, Chile.

Contributing: Andrea Mandell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Holland America’s Zaandam, Rotterdam get OK to transit Panama Canal for Florida

WATCH: Holland America ships headed to Florida (provided by CBS Miami)

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