Coronavirus: Holland America lets off cruise passengers; 14 critically ill taken to Florida hospitals

Passengers from the ill-fated Holland America Zaandam cruise ship were carefully freed from their cabins and allowed to touch dry land on Friday for the first time in weeks, following the removal of 14 critically ill people who were wheeled off to Florida hospitals bracing for an onslaught of coronavirus patients.

The Zaandam and the Rotterdam, which rendezvoused last week to transfer healthy passengers to the Rotterdam, were both given permission to disembark passengers at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after days of negotiation with local officials who feared it would divert needed resources from a region that has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases.

About 250 people have reported influenza-like symptoms, which are similar to those of the novel coronavirus, since March 22, including 17 aboard the Rotterdam, according to a docking plan.

In a Friday press briefing at the White House, President Donald Trump remarked that he worked with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and military doctors "to take care of these people" and help "the humanitarian catastrophe."

"We (couldn't) let them float aimlessly into the ocean looking for port as they've been doing for a long time and I made the decision we had to take them," Trump added.

It was unclear when the bodies of four passengers who died on the Zaandam would be removed from the ship. Two of the four deaths on board the Zaandam have been blamed on COVID-19, and causes of death for the other two have not been disclosed.

The exodus from the Zaandaam and its sister ship the Rotterdam was expected to continue throughout the day. Floridians were getting off first, followed by other passengers. Buses were taking people healthy enough to travel directly to the airport, where they’ll board chartered flights home without going through the terminal.

At least four buses brought the first small groups to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday morning, where they prepared to board two planes waiting on the tarmac. The passengers wore masks, while paramedics and airline workers were fully suited up and masked in protective gear.

In a document outlining the disembarkation procedure, Holland America said the first group, which includes around 1,200 passengers who are asymptomatic, will be allowed to disembark Friday or Saturday after passing a health screening.

They will also go through customs and border patrol processes at Port Everglades, rather than at the airport. 

Passengers on board the MS Zaandam and the MS Rotterdam who have been in limbo for more than a week were readying to leave the ship on Thursday.

On Wednesday night, Faye and Ed Hoover, among the passengers on board the Rotterdam received a message: Pack your bags.

"We've been told already last night to have our luggage ready to go this morning and to fill out the health forms and get our passports ready," Ed told USA TODAY Thursday afternoon.

The pair were getting on a plane early Friday afternoon getting ready for departure. The "process was seamless and pain free," Ed said. "Very organized." They had police escort the whole way. 

Holland America said the second group, which includes 26 symptomatic passengers who are not yet fit to travel, will remain on board the ship. All those passengers will be required to quarantine on board. Once they are asymptomatic for 72 hours, they will be allowed to disembark under the same protocol as the first group.

The rest of the crew will remain on board.

Port Everglades traffic records confirmed the arrival of the Zaandam and Rotterdam after 5 p.m. local time Thursday. There were 442 guests and 603 crew on the Zaandam, and 808 guests and 583 crew on the Rotterdam. 

Contributing: Associated Press