Just before the New Year, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised US citizens not to board a cruise ship in the light of the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, raising its warning to Level 4.
Later on 4th January, the CDC said in a note: “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose.”
The organisation also claimed that 97 out of 110 cruise ships tracked by the agency reported COVID-19 on board. This figure included every ship on a passenger voyage. The remainder were crew only voyages.
CDC’s latest Conditional Sail Order regarding cruise ships and COVID-19 in US waters was due to expire on 15th January.
Several other countries have either banned cruise ships or issued guidelines warning against taking a cruise. These included Hong Kong, Australia and Brazil, among others thus far, as the Omicron variant spreads across the world.
On 29th December, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) issued a statement saying that the decision by the CDC to raise the cruise travel level was particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently made up a very slim minority of the total population on board—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases were asymptomatic, or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources on board or onshore.
“No setting can be immune from this virus—however, it is also the case that cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus. Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land.
“While we are disappointed and disagree with the decision to single out the cruise industry—an industry that continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors—CLIA and our ocean-going cruise line members remain committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety,” the statement said.
CLIA also highlighted the cruise industry’s plus points regarding COVID-19:
• Cruise industry protocols are unique in their approach to effectively monitor, detect, and respond to potential cases of COVID-19
• Protocols encompass the entirety of the cruise experience, incorporating testing, vaccination, screening, sanitation, mask-wearing and other science-backed measures
• Many of our members have announced additional measures in response to the Omicron variant, including strengthening testing, masking and other requirements, as well as encouraging booster vaccine doses for those eligible
• Over 100 cruise ships have returned to US waters, carrying nearly more than one million people from a US port since late June, 2021
• The cruise industry is the only industry in the US travel and tourism sector that is requiring both vaccinations and testing for crew and guests
• Vaccination rates on board a cruise ship typically are upwards of 95%—significantly higher than the overall US population, which is hovering at 62%
• In the US alone, the cruise industry administers nearly 10 mill tests per week—21 times the rate of testing in the country
• The latest data showed that, even with higher rates of testing, the cruise industry continues to achieve significantly lower rates of occurrence of COVID-19—33% lower than onshore
• According to the CDC’s colour-coding system, a cruise ship may be determined to be ‘yellow’ – and, therefore, subject to CDC observation – if a threshold of 0.1% or more passengers (ie, seven out of 6,500) have tested positive in the last seven days, or if even just one crew member tests positive.
On 11th January, CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky told a US Senate hearing that cruise ships had suffered a 30-fold increase in positive COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks.
She also claimed that ships operating in US waters reported about 5,000 Covid cases from 15th to 29th December but didn’t provide any further updates, according to a report from CNBC.
Walensky said that she didn’t believe the CDC’s Conditional Sail Order, which replaced the No Sail Order, will be renewed. Instead, the agency expects to shift to a voluntary programme, working alongside cruise lines, she told the hearing.
In the light of the current situation, several cruise lines have postponed cruises and Royal Caribbean has announced that has stopped offering on board coronavirus tests to its guests.
On board testing proved popular with non-US tourists who were on US based cruise ships and would need a negative test result before returning to their countries of origin.
RCI said that there were three options open for non-US residents – terminal testing, airport testing and local testing sites (if that person is to remain in the US for a longer period than the cruise).
At cruise terminals, guests can take a rapid PCR or antigen COVID-19 test upon disembarkation. Results will be emailed to them shortly after.
Alternatively, guests travelling directly to the airport can schedule their rapid PCR or antigen COVID-19 test to be taken on-site with a test provider at the airport.
And finally, if a guest is staying in the US for a longer duration, there are various locations close to the cruise terminal, the airport and hotels in the area where PCR or antigen COVID-19 testing can be undertaken, RCI advised.
All three options will be communicated to the guests on board in greater detail. RCI stressed that was not affiliated with any test provider and the costs should be paid directly to the provider.
Elsewhere, at least three cruise lines are known to have insisted on booster jabs before boarding, while San Francisco is also demanding that passengers disembarking from a cruise ship should have had a booster jab or test negative upon their arrival.