(CNN) -- A pair of cruise ships carrying more than 200 guests and crew with flu-like symptoms will be allowed to dock in Florida’s Port of Everglades Thursday, ending a nightmarish voyage disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
A conditional agreement between the cruise line and local authorities will allow healthy passengers to go home while the sick remain on board for treatment, Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief said Thursday.
After days of uncertainty over their final destination, the Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships were to have passengers disembark about 1 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale port, according to Sharief.
The Zaandam's South American itinerary changed dramatically when nine passengers tested positive for Covid-19 and four men died on board. Sharief said the men were over the age of 70 -- two had been diagnosed with Covid-19, one suffered a heart attack and another succumbed to a preexisting illness.
No one on board is in need of a hospital bed at this time but local beds are available, Sharief said.
Holland America said late Wednesday that it had secured a local health system to treat the fewer than 10 people in need of immediate critical care onshore. The Broward Health Hospital System confirmed Thursday that critically ill patients from the Zaandam would be transferred there, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.
"Prepare to disembark" was the long-awaited, reassuring message delivered to passengers by the captain of the Rotterdam, the Zaandam's sister ship, on Thursday morning, according to passenger Laura Gabaroni.
Healthy passengers with permission to travel home will be transported by private bus from Port Everglades to local airports for charter flights, Sharief said. Some 200 passengers hail from countries requiring connecting flights to get home. Passengers will will be taken directly to flights to avoid possible spread of the virus.
Passengers on the Zaandam include 311 US citizens from 46 states, including 52 Floridians. Broward residents among them have agreed to isolate for an additional 14 days at home. The rest from from countries ranging from Canada to the UK to Australia.
On Wednesday night, the British-American cruise line called the plight of those on board a "humanitarian situation." It made a last-ditch appeal to federal and local authorities to allow the cruise ships to disembark in the Port of Everglades.
"Holland America Line calls for compassion and reason in the review and approval of our disembarkation plan by Florida officials," the cruise line said in a statement.
The appeal came hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis said his state was willing to accept Floridians on board the cruise ships.
583 crew on the Rotterdam and 442 guests and 603 crew on the Zaandam, according to Holland America.
DeSantis expressed concerns about taking in others given the state's limited hospital beds.
Nearly 1,200 guests are fit to travel home, per CDC guidelines, according to the cruise line.
The Zaandam, on which four guests have died since it departed Argentina's capital March 7, is among more than a dozen cruise ships stranded at sea as ports deny entry and passengers panic about returning home.
‘They need to get to land’
The Zaandam began transiting the Panama Canal late Sunday after being docked off Panama for several days. The boat and its occupants have been in limbo for weeks awaiting permission to disembark after several South American ports denied the ship's entry.
The US Coast Guard, in a marine safety information bulletin issued Sunday, said an increase in foreign passenger vessels requiring medical evacuations was straining local medical resources.
Passengers have "better access to comfortable surroundings and medical staff on board the foreign passenger vessel where care is already being provided," according to the bulletin.
Jennifer Allan said her mother, Gloria Weed, 70, and father, Bill Weed, 75, have been quarantined in their cabin aboard the Zaandam in what she described as "solitary confinement."
"My dad has developed pneumonia," she told CNN this week. "He's getting worse. They need to get to land. They need to get medical attention sooner rather than later."
Allan said her parents, who live in Sarasota, Florida, came down with a fever about 10 days ago. She described the efforts of the Zaandam crew members to care for passengers as "extraordinary" even though many are themselves sick.
No one has left the ship since it stopped in Punta Arenas, Chile, on March 14. Guests were originally told they could disembark in Chile for flights, but ultimately that was forbidden.
Holland America deployed the Rotterdam to offer relief. Rotterdam met Zaandam off Panama on March 26 to "provide extra supplies, staff, Covid-19 test kits and other support as needed."
Holland America transferred healthy Zaandam guests to Rotterdam.
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