MIAMI — Sick people on board the Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships fear they are dying as they steam toward South Florida. But Broward County and Carnival Corp. have yet to agree on a plan that will allow them on shore once they arrive.
After a five-hour meeting Tuesday, commissioners rejected the company’s plan, saying it lacked specifics, and sent it back to the drawing board. The ship is scheduled to arrive in South Florida late Wednesday or early Thursday.
At a press conference Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump said he is going to speak to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about allowing the ships to dock.
“We have two ships, there are people that are sick on the ships,” Trump said. “We don’t want them to be ghost ships.”
Jennifer Allan, whose parents Gloria and Bill Weed are aboard, fears her sick parents’ lives could be in the balance.
“This isn’t a cruise anymore,” said Allan, 44, of Land O’ Lakes. “They are in solitary confinement.”
The Weeds, who have visited 120 countries while cruising during their retirement, are two of 446 passengers aboard the Zaandam cruise ship, operated by Carnival Corp.’s Holland America Line. The ship has seen four passengers die after being turned away from Chile on March 21. Nearly 800 Zaandam passengers transferred to a sister ship, the Rotterdam, over the weekend.
The ships have more than 1,000 crew members between them. Between the two ships, nine passengers have tested positive for COVID-19, Carnival Corp. chief maritime officer Bill Burke said Tuesday.
Every country between Chile to the U.S. has turned passengers away, including Mexico, where Burke said the company had hoped to medevac two people with COVID-19 in critical condition Tuesday.
The March 8 cruise was originally supposed to end in Chile on March 21; a new sailing was scheduled to take passengers from South America to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, arriving April 7. More than 400 of those currently on board originally planned to ride the ship all the way to Florida, including the Weeds.
The Sarasota couple, who was traveling with frequent sailing companions, has been quarantined in their windowless cabin for nine days.
Bill Weed, who is 75, has pneumonia and is no longer able to eat food or swallow the antibiotic pills he’s being given. Gloria Weed, 70, has had a fever for nine days.
In an email to the Miami Herald, Gloria Weed wrote that the infirmary on the ship is full, and that there is no room for her husband.
“My husband really needs to be in a hospital before it’s too late,” she said.
Their daughter said she has been worried about her aging parents traveling before, but “this is the first time it’s gone wrong.”
She said her parents has traveled in Asia during the early 2000s outbreak of SARS, a species of coronavirus. Her parents wore masks the whole time and never got sick.
The Weeds’ friends, who were not showing symptoms, were moved off the ship and onto the Rotterdam, the Zaandam’s sister ship, Allan said.
Allan said that despite her parents’ medical issues, she has nothing but praise for the crew on board. They write nice notes when the passengers’ food gets delivered and have sent games and puzzles to help people pass the time.
But crew members are also falling ill, and family members are having trouble getting in touch. In a Facebook group for family and friends of the ship’s passengers and crew, people are asking one another for cabin numbers so that their loved ones can use the in-cabin phone to make wellness checks.
State Rep. Margaret Good, who represents Sarasota, said when she learned of her constituents stuck on board the Zaandam, she contacted the governor’s office to express her concern.
In Tallahassee Tuesday, DeSantis said he does not want to see people from the Zaandam get off in Florida
“The best way is to be sending medical attention to the ship,” he said. “The cruise ships should be responsible for helping facilitate that. To drop people where we are having the highest number of cases, that doesn’t sound good.”
Good said when she heard the statement, she was “surprised, dismayed and distraught not only for my constituents but for everyone aboard those two vessels.”
“There are people who are gravely ill and are dying on the Zaandam,” said Good, a Sarasota Democrat. “It is certainly a complicated situation, but that does not mean we should turn them away and turn our backs on them.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Broward commissioners seemed poised to allow the ships to dock at Port Everglades, but under strict conditions. The county rejected two sets of plans from Carnival Corp., which owns both ships, that outlined an approach to disembark passengers and safely return them home. The county wants a legally binding agreement that puts the responsibility for the care of passengers and crew on board on the company.
The first plan submitted described the company flying the ships’ healthy passengers from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or Miami International Airport to the West Coast, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany via commercial and charter planes, according to copies of the plan provided to the Miami Herald.
The ships would dock at Port Everglades, where healthy passengers would be screened, temperature checked and cleared for departure. They would then board buses to the airports. Others would have the option to drive home with their own cars, rented vehicles, or ground transit coordinated by Carnival Corp.
Other than “gravely sick” passengers, those with mild COVID-19, flu or other respiratory issues would stay on board. Crew would also stay on the ship. Passengers and crew with severe illness would be transferred to a local hospital’s intensive care unit.
The second plan was essentially the same, but noted that an “improved” plan was to be presented soon.
After five hours of discussion with representatives from Carnival Corp., the Broward County Sheriff’s office, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Coast Guard and Port Everglades’ officials, commissioners told the cruise company to submit another plan with updated information about the number of sick passengers and crew. The company must agree to pay for all medivac services, coordinate hospital arrangements, and sanitize any equipment used by county staff.
Burke, the Carnival Corp. executive, said 14 people between the two ships are currently showing flu-like symptoms, and two of them are seriously ill. Previous totals of those with flu-like symptoms included those who have recovered, Burke said. He said he felt “uncomfortable pointing this out,” but Carnival Corp. has 1,500 employees and 375 vendors in Broward.
“We are not only a requester in this situation, we are also a user of your wonderful services and this ship is home-ported here,” he said.
Both ships are equipped to care for two people in critical condition, Burke said, and have 200 COVID-19 “rapid test” kits on board, which can return false negatives. The Zaandam has four doctors and five nurses on board, and the Rotterdam has two doctors and four nurses. Burke assured commissioners that the company will be able to care for people with mild illness on the ship, without relying on U.S. healthcare resources.
Broward commissioner Mark Bogen asked Burke about recent medical evacuations from cruise ships in and around Port Everglades reported by the Miami Herald. Around 30 ships on any day are clustered around Port Everglades and PortMiami with only crew on board, waiting to be able to cruise again after the pandemic subsides. On Monday evening, two Royal Caribbean cruise ship workers were evacuated at Port Everglades, followed by a Princess Cruises worker on Tuesday morning. All showed COVID-19 symptoms.
Port Everglades director Glenn Wiltshire said the county, the Coast Guard and the CDC were not aware of Tuesday’s evacuation before it happened. Burke said Princess Cruises coordinated directly with the Broward Health system.
“If there are ships coming in with sick crew, we need to know this,” Bogen said. “Are we just letting them in? Who is checking the accuracy? … I want everyone to get home. I want to make sure your company is giving accurate information so we can properly prepare.” New rules issued by the U.S. Coast Guard March 29 require notification.
Cindy Friedman, who works with the CDC’s cruise ships task force, told the commission that the agency no longer recommends cruise ship quarantines like the ones seen on the Diamond Princess in Japan and the Grand Princess in California. The CDC did not respond to request for comment about whether the plan to keep the mildly ill on board the Zaandam and Rotterdam ships for treatment constitutes a quarantine.
Commissioners and state representatives say their inboxes are flooded with please from desperate families of those on board.
Rep. Evan Jenne, who lives a stone’s throw from Port Everglades, said people in his community are “rightfully nervous” of ships docking at the port. However, he said, that doesn’t mean the state should leave sick passengers on board for any longer.
“At what point do you throw your humanity away?” the Dania Beach Democrat said. “There are two dozen Floridians on that boat and they need to come home. Leaving them at sea may not be a death sentence, but it’s a sentence of some kind.”
He said the state must come up with a plan to get them the help they need without necessarily overwhelming the health care system in Broward County, which has logged 1,137 positive cases of COVID-19.
“We need to come up with a plan to get them the help that they need,” he said. “Condemning them to die or be sick without treatment is borderline inhumane … Let’s get them to another port and work something out where they can come to shore. The answer is to find these people help.”
Rep. Chip LaMarca, who represents parts of Broward County, said he agrees the ship needs a plan to treat sick passengers, but that Port Everglades should not be the only solution offered.
“I agree with Gov. Ron DeSantis that medical care should be sent out to the ship,” he wrote in a statement. “I’m all in to help get this done with whatever assets are needed to make this happen.”
He suggested the ship dock in U.S. Naval Ports in “much less populated communities.”
“Holland America made the reckless decision to begin their voyage knowing that we were in a global pandemic,” he wrote in a statement. “I do not believe that Holland America’s vessels should be granted access to any American port until we have clear and accurate information.”
Allan said she’s read the comments people have left on Miami Herald articles about the ship, and is upset to see those that suggest the ship be turned away from Port Everglades.
“I think that people need to open their hearts and look at the human side of what’s going on,” she said. “It’s not their fault. They started this trip before it became what it is. To leave everybody to die is just wrong.”
Miami Herald reporters Aaron Leibowitz and Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this report.
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