Note: This article was updated on January 11, 2022 with the most recent figures.
Cruise ships are seeing the impact of the Omicron variant. Could rising case counts lead to another pause in sailing?
Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows a sharp rise in the number of ships potentially seeing COVID cases in recent weeks. This comes at the same time cases of the variant are rising sharply around the world — including in the United States.
Each day, all the cruise ships operating in U.S. waters submit a report to the CDC outlining any potential cases aboard the vessel. So if a crew member or a passenger falls ill and tests positive for the virus, it goes on this report.
From there, the CDC assigns a color status to the ship — either green, orange, yellow, or red. Green means there are currently no potential cases on board. Orange or yellow status means there are potential cases, and a color is assigned based on who is infected and in what numbers. Red status indicates “sustained transmission” of the virus on the ship.
Each weekday the CDC releases an updated chart showing all the cruise ships operating in U.S. waters and their current color status. While the specific numbers of cases aren’t shared, the color status is updated based on the reports from the previous seven days.
We’ve tracked this daily data on Cruzely.com (see our latest update here). So far, the numbers of ships showing “non-green” status has varied widely, but largely follows cases on land. Back in August, during the peak of the summer Delta wave, the percentage of non-green ships topped 50%.
After that, the percentage gradually declined, as did U.S. cases. That’s now being followed with the most dramatic rise yet in the past few weeks.
On December 13, CDC reports showed 24% of ships as yellow or orange. Data from December 27 — just two weeks later — showed more than 80% had that status. Today the figure has risen higher, to around 90%.
Faster Spreading Variant That Beats Vaccines?
This move comes alongside the rise in Omicron cases around the world. And if there are cases on land, then it’s a near certainty there will be cases on ships.
While the CDC doesn’t report specific case numbers for cruise ships or what variant is found, the Louisiana Department of Health said one NCL ship sailing from New Orleans had at least one probable case of Omicron among 17 total cases recently found on the ship.
While there is still plenty to learn about the new variant, a couple of characteristics have been shown. First is that Omicron spreads exceptionally quickly. Places like South Africa, the U.K., and the United States have seen sharp spikes in cases, often coming within just days.
The second feature is that the variant seems to do a better job of infecting vaccinated people. This includes a Christmas party in Norway that saw dozens come down with COVID, despite reports they had to be vaccinated and show a negative test to attend.
Most recently, a Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas reported 48 cases among the more than 6,000 people on the ship. Of those who tested positive, the cruise line said that 98% were fully vaccinated. Thankfully, those people were said to be either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. (Note: It wasn’t mentioned which variant the cases might be, but the variant’s ability to more easily infect the vaccinated is a trait.)
And the CDC shared that between December 15 and December 29, there were more than 5,000 positive cases on ships, according to The Washington Post.
If there is any good news, it’s that there are reasons to believe Omicron cases may be milder. Even so, more cases — even if mild — are a hurdle for the cruise industry.
Cruise Lines Already Making Changes
Obviously the variant is not good news for anyone, but it could be particularly troublesome for cruise ships.
If cases can spread more quickly — and more easily among vaccinated passengers — then cruise ships face a big challenge. Vaccinations have been one of the biggest tools against seeing cases on cruise ships.
In fact, despite requiring 100% vaccinations for both passengers and crew, Norwegian Cruise Line, just adjusted its mask policy in response. Where before passengers could go mask-free since there was 100% vaccination, the cruise line now requires masks indoors, except when in your cabin or when dining.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival have also announced similar policies.
Will a Surge Pause Cruises? Here’s Our Opinion…
With the surge in cases on land, it’s no surprise that we’re also seeing the rise in yellow-status ships. Of course, cruise lines won’t sit still as the new masking rules show.
We would expect more protocols to be put in place as the variant spreads to keep passengers safe. For instance, this might mean testing at the terminal in addition to testing days ahead of the trip. It might also mean more testing on the ship or requiring boosters for passengers who had their last shot months ago. As well, some countries or ports could put blocks on ships visiting as we’ve seen travel restrictions in several places already.
But what about an entire pause of the industry like we saw back in March 2020? We’d never rule anything out as this entire crisis has shown that the unthinkable can happen. At this point, however, we’d be surprised by another industry-wide pause.
Cruise lines have more protocols in place than any other type of travel, as well as the infrastructure and control to adjust procedures in the face of cases. They’ve also sailed under these protocols fairly successfully. Cases have been found, but spread seems to have been contained. As well, positivity rates are below what’s seen on land.
Unless we see shut downs of theme parks, sporting events, movie theaters, and the like, it seems difficult to imagine cruises being singled out again. That’s especially the case now that ships have sailed for several weeks and no pause has been put in place yet.
Still, the easy spread — even if vaccinated — has lead to cases spiking around the world and a strain on medical care. That generates a lot of anxiety, even if cases turn out to be milder. So we wouldn’t take any possibility off the table at this point.
What wouldn’t surprise us is if there are more restrictions placed on ships while cases are high and seeing the occasional trip that has to be canceled due to the variant simply spreading so easily. In fact, we’ve recently seen some pauses in sailing aboard select Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ships.
Bottom line: It’s not clear what will happen regarding cruises and the new variant, but at this point it is clear that it will be another major hurdle the industry will have to face. And with the number of yellow-status ships spiking, that challenge is already here.