Minnesotan aboard ship with two confirmed COVID-19 cases

It has been a frightening voyage on the cruise ship Zaandam. Four passengers have died, two have tested positive for COVID-19 and 138 are sick with flu-like symptoms.

Cathy Armajani from Minnetonka found herself in the middle of all of it.

“We are dealing with a very fluid and scary situation,” she wrote in an email to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. “No one wants to be in this situation, but it happened.”

Armajani and two friends are among the 1,800 passengers and crew stranded on the Holland America ship.

The Zaandam left Bueno Aires, Argentina, on March 7 for a two-week South American voyage.

But days into that journey, the cruise line suspended operations because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

That was a surprise to some on board.

“When we boarded the cruise on March 7, there was only one case of the virus in Brazil,” passenger Chuck Black said. “One case in Buenos Aires, so we had no qualms about joining the ship.”

On Friday, the ship’s captain announced that four passengers had died and spoke about the other cases on board.

“It was confirmed of the four deaths on board,” Armajani said. “That took us all back, a very somber day, but we got through it, but we continue prayers for these four people and their families.”

Passengers were told a second cruise ship, the Rotterdam, will evacuate healthy passengers who show no symptoms.

Armajani says the ship began doing health checks late Friday and started moving healthy passengers Saturday. But she and her friends will not be a part of that group.

“The three of us are healthy, but because one of us uses a CPAP (sleep apnea) machine, we will not be able to move to the Rotterdam,” Armajani said. “We respect that decision, although it came as a surprise.”

The Zaandam is now in Panamanian territory, with some passengers stuck on the ship for nearly two weeks, quarantined in their cabins since Sunday.

And yet there’s another wrinkle for the stranded passengers.

The Panamanian government says the ship can’t go through the canal if anyone on board has a confirmed case of COVID-19. That’s because Panamanian personnel need to board the ship to guide it through.

There are conflicting social media reports which say the Panamanians have relented and will let the ship travel through the canal.

One report says the ship will be allowed to proceed on the condition that no passenger or crew member may disembark on Panamanian soil and that the country will use biosecurity measures to protect the personnel who participate in the maneuver.

Armajani says the captain has told her and other passengers that that’s "not 100% confirmed."

Nonetheless, she has high praise for the crew.

“The staff has been working around the clock, delivering meals three times daily, beverages, fresh towels and supplies daily,” she wrote. “Incredible!”

For now, Armajani says, she and her friends have to wear masks when they open their cabin doors or go out on a balcony.

She’s hoping to hear an update about where the three will go from here.

“The outpouring from people is a bit overwhelming and humbling,” she said. “My goal is to remain positive and try and make good of a not so good situation.”