There are growing signs that the Omicron variant could be causing issues for the cruise industry, just as it is causing issues on land.
First, the number of ships showing possible cases has spiked in recent days, according to CDC data. Second, major lines recently made masking indoors mandatory, including Norwegian Cruise Line, which sails with 100% of passengers and crew vaccinated.
Now, the world’s largest cruise ship — Symphony of the Seas — just saw 48 people on the ship test positive for COVID. Among those testing positive, 98% were fully vaccinated. (The ship had 95% of those aboard fully vaccinated, according to the cruise line.)
While there is no word if the cases were from the Omicron variant, that strain is thought to be better able to evade vaccines.
Symphony of the Seas docked back home in Miami over the weekend. Royal Caribbean says the ship was carrying 6,091 passengers and crew as it sailed a weeklong trip to the eastern Caribbean. That means the 48 people testing positive represent a little less than 1% of those on the ship.
“Each person quickly went into quarantine. Everyone who tested positive was asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and we continuously monitored their health. Six guests were disembarked earlier in the cruise and were transported home,” the company said in a statement.
Royal Caribbean also said future cruises will not be impacted. In fact, the ship is currently docked in Cozumel, Mexico.
The cruise line requires passengers 12 and older to have the vaccine in order to sail. In addition, crew members are all required to be vaccinated, including a booster dose six months after their last shot. Royal Caribbean says they “strongly” recommend guests get a booster dose as well, although it is not currently required.
Vaccinated guests also must present a negative COVID test taken no more than two days before boarding. Kids sailing unvaccinated must test negative days before the cruise and then have an additional test at the terminal in order to sail.
Will Omicron Cause Issues With Sailing?
Outbreaks on ships have happened from time-to-time. This includes several reported by the CDC that impacted more than a hundred people across consecutive voyages. Still, the vaccine and testing protocols on ships have largely limited spread.
Between June 26 and October 21, The CDC says 1,359 cases were reported by the ships it tracks. That averages about 12 cases a day across hundreds of thousands of passengers and crew across dozens of ships.
However, this was all before the Omicron variant was discovered. Since then, many parts of the world have seen sharp rises in cases, including in the United States. The variant spreads far more quickly than past versions and also seems able to evade vaccines when it comes to infection. (A third booster dose does seem to increase the vaccine’s effectiveness against infection.)
While there aren’t specific statistics regarding which variant is found on cruise ships, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship sailing from New Orleans was said to have at least one Omicron case among 17 people who tested positive.
In addition, there’s also been a spike in the number of ships possibly seeing cases. Each day cruise ships sailing — or planning to sail — from U.S. waters report health information to the CDC. The agency then assigns a color status to these ships depending on the reports. Green, for example, indicates no possible cases of COVID found. Orange or yellow means possible cases on the ship, including as little as just one case.
On December 13, the number of orange or yellow status ships stood at 24%. Just three days later, that figure had jumped to 36%.
Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL have all also implemented indoor mask policies for the coming weeks on their ships in response to Omicron. Now guests are required to wear masks while indoors, except when in their cabin or actively eating or drinking. This policy includes vaccinated passengers.
Omicron definitely has the attention of the cruise industry as they return to sailing. We should know more in the coming days and weeks about what further impact it may have on the future of cruises.