The speed in which COVID cases have hit cruise ships is stunning.
Just two weeks ago, 26 of the more than 100 ships tracked by the CDC had possible virus cases onboard during the previous seven days. As of December 27, that figure now totals 89 ships — more than triple what was seen in mid-December.
These figures come from the CDC’s Cruise Ship Color Status report. Updated each weekday, the report assigns a color status to ships currently sailing or with plans to sail in U.S. waters. Colors are assigned as green, orange, yellow, or red. Status other than green indicates possible or confirmed virus cases on the ship. (It should be mentioned there are a few technicalities that can also lead to “non-green” status.)
With the sharp rise in the Omicron variant on land, cruise ships seem to be following the same pattern with the number of impacted vessels soaring:
Additionally, not every ship tracked by the CDC is sailing with passengers just yet. Those without passengers are doing much better regarding their color status.
As of the last daily update, 111 ships were being tracked. Eighteen ships were “crew only” ships. Of those, only three had a status other than green.
The remaining 93 ships were “restricted,” indicating they are sailing with passengers or have been approved to do so. Of those ships, 86 of them — or 92% — had yellow status.
Cases Moving Higher Despite Protocols
This spike in cases comes despite cruise ships having the most rigorous protocols of any segment of the travel industry. Measures include requiring the vast majority of passengers and all crewmembers to be vaccinated.
In addition, negative tests are required within two days of sailing for vaccinated passengers. Some lines test at the terminal before boarding. Mask mandates have been put in place requiring masks while boarding and in indoor areas of the ships unless eating or drinking. Occupancy levels are also lower than before the pandemic to allow for more space on the ship.
Even with the protocols like vaccine requirements in place, the number of “non green” ships has skyrocketed.
For instance, Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley said in a Facebook post that almost all the cases his line sees are with fully vaccinated passengers.
“98 per cent plus of positive cases are with the fully vaccinated and 99 per cent plus are asymptomatic or with very mild symptoms often surprised they are positive at all,” Michael Bayley shared.
If there is any good news for the industry, it is that cases of the new variant appear to be more mild, whether due to the virus itself or the build-up of prior immunity or vaccines.
Even so, there is no arguing that cases are rising fast on land and there have been high profile outbreaks on several ships.
That’s getting the attention of not just cruise passengers, but politicians as well.
More Cases Bring More Scrutiny
On Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut sent out a message on Twitter calling for another pause in cruising. The message, in which he likened cruise ships to petri dishes, said it was “time for the CDC and cruise lines to protect consumers” by halting trips:
Our warnings have proved sadly prescient & continuously compelling. Time for CDC & cruise lines to protect consumers & again pause—docking their ships. Cruises are repeating recent history as petri dishes of COVID infection. https://t.co/0P7VQNFlpo
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) December 28, 2021
His statement was met with a number of replies that argued for the cruise industry, which many viewed as being singled out.
“No, thank you. Are you also going to shut down airlines and hotels? I doubt it. Cruise lines have taken more precautions than any other travel industry and have been held to a higher standard,” responded one user.
“Do the math. Odyssey: 5186 pax/crew, 55 positives=1%; Symphony: 6091 pax/crew, 48 positives=.79%; QM2: 1473 pax, 10 positives=.68%… Evidence that (most) ships are doing an exceptionally good job. Hardly a petri dish!” said another.
“And how many positive cases are there in Disney everyday? Oh that’s right we don’t know because there is no reporting. But Disney is fine to be without a mask and no social distancing. The positivity rate on cruises is significantly below shore side levels,” still another user wrote.
Whether right or wrong, cruise ships are caught in a difficult situation regarding perception. There’s little argument that without mitigation, a virus can spread through the close confines of a cruise ship. However, cruise lines have put in numerous protocols to keep the virus from moving so easily.
Part of these protocols include testing of crew and passengers for potential illness when on the ship and contact tracing to find other cases. In other words, precisely because cruise lines have put in protocols to hunt down possible infections, they are also more likely to find them on the ship compared to places like airports, casinos, hotels, and theaters.
No matter if it’s fair or not, for the cruise industry this health crisis seems to be a recurring bad dream that just won’t end.