In response to a soaring number of ships impacted by COVID-19, the CDC has put its strictest warning on taking a cruise. In a change made today, the agency revised its cruise warning from Level 3 to Level 4, its highest level possible.
This warning says that the public should “avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status.”
The change comes as a blow to the cruise industry, which had returned to sailing in mid-2021 after being paused approximately a year and a half. Until recently, ships were able to sail with relatively few cases — even during the peak of the Delta variant — thanks to vaccination and testing requirements, along with other protocols.
In recent days, however, the Omicron variant seems to be causing major hurdles in cruising. This new variant is more transmissible and better able to evade vaccines. While the shots do provide protection against serious illness, they are less effective at protecting against infection than what was seen with other variants.
The result is that the number of ships tracked by the CDC in the United States has soared. In mid-December, just 24% of ships tracked by the agency had possible COVID cases. Now that figure is above 80%. On ships sailing with passengers (and not considered “crew only”), the percentage is even higher.
CDC Updated Advice on Cruising
With the rise of the warning level, the CDC also said that “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.”
If you do decide to cruise, the health agency says that you should be fully vaccinated (which is already required of most passengers) and have a vaccine booster if eligible.
In addition, the warning says passengers should test 3-5 days after their cruise, no matter if they are feeling symptoms or vaccinated.
Here’s a full run-down of the CDC’s recommendations:
- Avoid cruise travel, regardless of if you are vaccinated or not.
- If you do take a cruise, ensure you’re vaccinated and with a booster if eligible.
- Get tested 1-3 days before the cruise and 3-5 days after the trip, even if no symptoms.
- Unvaccinated passengers should self-quarantine for five days after the cruise.
- Passengers should wear a mask when in shared spaces.
Less Severity? Royal Caribbean Says Omicron is “Milder”
Earlier in the day, Royal Caribbean Group gave an update on its business and the impact of Omicron. It said that it has carried 1.1 million guests since cruising returned in the U.S. and had 1,745 people test positive. The company pointed out that is a positivity rate of 0.02%.
However, it’s not clear if that includes the most recent data when the Omicron variant has driven a spike in cases around the world. Even so, the company did sound optimistic that the variant leads to much milder conditions.
“The company is navigating through the ever-evolving information on the Omicron variant. Our case count has spiked, but the level of severity is significantly milder. We will remain nimble and in constant contact with health authorities,” said Royal Caribbean’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson.
Statistics cited by the company said that so far none of the Omicron cases found on the ship have been severe or needed hospitalization.
Still, the variant is no doubt causing havoc on cruising, with well-documented outbreaks on ships, refusal of docking at some ports, and now the CDC’s warning against travel, even if vaccinated.
The one hope for the industry is that Omicron is so fast spreading there is reason to think it may “burn out” quickly, leading to an improvement in conditions on land and at sea. For now, at least, cruise ships are in the middle of the storm.