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Over 130 Aussies on Holland America’s Zaandam and Rotterdam are on their way home on a chartered United Airlines flight.

United says the charter will be a direct flight from San Francisco Airport to Sydney Airport and will only carry passengers from the Zaandam and the Rotterdam to prevent other passengers from potentially being exposed to coronavirus.

A United spokesman, Frank Benenati told USA Today that an initial group of passengers arrived in San Francisco last week and were given lodging and meals while they waited for their flight home.

“Although these passengers were cleared by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our crew and customers, we scheduled a special charter flight for only those passengers to depart,” United said in a statement provided by Mr Benenati.

“These are extraordinary times and while we take enormous pride in our commitment to safety, we also take pride in our ability to connect the world,” the airline said.

“By providing these Australian citizens a safe and much needed way to get home after a long time at sea a half a world away, we exemplify our commitment and are proud to do our part to help all we can during this crisis.”

Once the second group arrived, all Aussies would be flown home. Everyone who boarded the plane was screened by a doctor to ensure they were fit to travel.

Last week, after almost three weeks at sea, the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis gave the ship permission to dock in Fort Lauderdale, Florida after an agreement was made with Holland America.

“Both Zaandam and the Rotterdam have just received clearance for both ships to proceed into Port Everglades,” the captain of the Rotterdam announced to passengers on Thursday afternoon,” said the Captain of the Zaandam.

“I am very happy to share this good news with you. It has been a long journey. Your journey home is ready to begin and we will give you an update on the next steps.”

The Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said that 131 Aussies who have been on both ships will be able to come home.

Aside from the Australians, there are 305 Americans, 259 Canadians and 229 from the United Kingdom.

Hundreds of passengers will disembark and those in a critical condition will be transferred to hospital. Four people have died on the Zaandam but the cause of death is unknown.

Photos show people being transferred from the Zaandam to waiting ambulances. The sick and local residents were the only ones allowed to leave Port Everglades on Thursday.

“These travelers could have been any one of us or our families, unexpectedly caught in the middle of this unprecedented closure of global borders that happened in a matter of days and without warning,” said Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line.

“We are so happy to be able to get our guests home and assist those few who need additional medical services. The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our shared humanity, and we must do everything we can to ensure we continue to act in ways consistent with our common human dignity.

“Our guests on board both ships have been truly incredible, and we extend our deepest thanks and appreciation to all of them,” said Mr Ashford.

“Their cooperation, support and understanding throughout this entire experience helped us best protect the health of all on board and ensured our shipboard teams could focus on caring for everyone and getting them home.

Earlier this week, Mr Ashford made an impassioned plea for governments to help passengers who are sick on the Zaandam.

Since March 22, 97 guests (83 on Zaandam/14 on Rotterdam) and 136 crew on Zaandam (0 on Rotterdam) have presented with influenza-like symptoms.

HAL has said they had seen significant decline in the presentation of new cases on Zaandam, with only one new case reporting in the past 24 hours.

There are 808 guests and 583 crew on Rotterdam. On Zaandam there are 442 guests and 603 crew.

Three days ago, while the ships passed through the Panama Canal, Holland America moved asymptomatic passengers from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam.

“We are going to be willing to accept Floridians on board,” he told reporters. “My understanding is most of the passengers are foreign nationals,” Mr DeSantis said.

“My concern is that we have worked so hard to make sure we have adequate hospital space in the event of a Covid-19 surge, we wouldn’t want those valuable beds to be taken because of the cruise ship.”

The ship had been turned away from several South American ports after a number of countries closed their borders.

On March 21, Zaandam was originally scheduled to begin a 20-day South America and Panama Canal cruise from San Antonio, Chile, and end in Fort Lauderdale on April 7. On March 30 an additional 30-day extension of cruise cancellations was announced, including departures through May 14.

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