FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Passengers from an ill-fated cruise were carefully freed from their cabins and allowed to touch dry land Friday for the first time in weeks, after the removal of 14 critically ill people who were wheeled off to Florida hospitals bracing for an onslaught of coronavirus patients.
The exodus from the Zaandam and sister ship the Rotterdam could extend into Saturday, officials said. Floridians disembarked first, followed by other passengers. Buses were taking asymptomatic passengers after being screened and cleared by third-party paramedics directly to the airport, escorted by deputies on motorcycles.
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony dispatched more than 70 deputies to disembark and transport the passengers.
“It’s a lot of manpower. But it’s worth it. We don’t want to have people dying on ships,” Tony said, adding the vessels have been turned away enough. It “wasn't some pirate ship. ... These are our brothers and sisters on this planet."
As for those needing medical care, Broward Health officials said in a statement that some of the 10 patients taken to its hospital were in fair condition, without specifying the number. Four others were taken to another local hospital.
Before disembarking, passengers received instructions to wear face masks at all times when traveling and go immediately into 14 days of self-quarantine when they arrived home.
Buses brought the first small groups to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday morning, where they boarded planes waiting on the tarmac. Paramedics and airline workers were fully suited up and masked in protective gear. The first planes left for Toronto, Atlanta and San Francisco, officials said.
Tom Brazier, 77, and his wife disembarked Friday to get on a charter plane to San Francisco and then another flight to Portland, Oregon, and drive back to his Ocean Park, Washington, home. His sister, Mary Beth Van Horn, was driving his car to leave it ready for him at the airport and said she was grateful the passengers were welcomed after days of negotiations.
“It is great knowing that they are safe now,” she said. “They are exhausted, but they are fine. They will be sleeping in their own bed by tomorrow,” she said.
About 1,000 passengers remain isolated in their cabins on another Carnival Corp.-owned ship. The Coral Princess has 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is still at sea east of the Bahamas, Princess Cruises said in a statement.
Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine said on Twitter Friday evening that Princess had previously submitted an application for a Saturday arrival, but that's won't occur. The company needs a new operations plan approved by the county and the Unified Command before the ship can be authorized to enter the port, Udine said.
The U.S. Coast Guard has directed that hundreds of crew members should remain on the dozens of cruise ships that are either docked or waiting just off Florida's shores, and that cruise lines should be prepared to treat all but the most serious cases of people who are ill on board to avoid adding more stress to Florida's health care system.
Already, crew members are getting sicker. One has died on the Celebrity Infinity and two others were medically evacuated from the Oasis of the Seas, according to an email Friday from their company, the Miami-based Royal Caribbean cruise line. The Infinity is waiting off Florida’s west coast, and the Oasis of the Seas is positioned off Fort Lauderdale.
Seemingly following these new directives, Holland America indicated in the plan for the Zaandam and Rotterdam that 26 passengers who were mildly ill would stay on board until they recovered, but all passengers ultimately needed to be cleared by paramedics. Nine people had tested positive for the new coronavirus, said William Burke, chief maritime officer for Carnival Corp., which owns the ships.
Burke said earlier this week that two of the four passengers who died had COVID-19. The docking plan said the offices of the medical examiner and sheriff would remove the deceased from the Zaandam, and Holland America said it was helping the families with all arrangements.
The Rotterdam was sent last week to take in some of the 1,200 passengers of the Zaandam and provide assistance since it was denied permission to dock at ports in South America.
Originally firmly opposed to the ships’ arrival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had a change of heart after realizing many passengers were U.S. citizens and about 50 of them Floridians.
In an interview with Fox News, DeSantis said that allowing passengers to disembark and transferring critically ill patients to hospitals was “the humanitarian thing to do.”
Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami, contributed to this report.
The spelling of the name of the Zaandam cruise ship has been corrected.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.