As Omicron cases spike around the world, cruise ships — despite their protocols aimed to combat the virus — have also seen a rise in reported cases.
While official numbers aren’t released by the CDC, the agency does track cases found on cruise ships under its Conditional Sailing Order. It then assigns a color status — green, orange, yellow, or red — based on conditions on the ship. Anything other than green means there are possible cases in recent days.
On December 13, the CDC tracked 26 ships with “non-green” status. By December 23, that figure jumped to 75 ships.
That move is by far the sharpest we’ve seen since we began tracking the daily status of ships back in August.
Meanwhile, several ships have drawn media attention due to having cases among passengers and crew. This includes Symphony of the Seas — the world’s largest cruise ship — which recently saw 48 cases. As well, Norwegian Breakaway had another 17 cases reported by the Louisiana Department of Health.
With the variant being easily transmissible and better able to evade vaccines, seemingly overnight it has thrown another hurdle at the cruise industry. And while many cruise lines are usually tight-lipped about the specifics of what they are seeing on their ships, Royal Caribbean International is providing some commentary on how the virus is impacting their operations.
Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley posted an update on his Facebook page, with details surrounding what’s happening across his cruise line’s fleet. With more than 20 ships returned to sailing, Royal Caribbean sails with tens of thousands of passengers each week, giving valuable insight about what’s happening at sea.
Occupancy Still Below Pre-Pandemic Norms
According to Bayley, Royal Caribbean currently has 21 ships sailing. The cruise line has steadily ramped up occupancy from 20-30% back in July to 70-80% today. That still trails the cruise line’s typical occupancy, which is usually north of 100%:
“We now have 21 ships back in operation, 40,000 crew back to work all fully vaccinated and all now receiving their booster shots and over 50,000 to 60,000 guests a week sailing with us all fully vaccinated (over 12) and increasingly the 5 to 12 year olds are getting vaccinated. We have also been managing capacity from our start up in July with 20 to 30 per cent average load factors increasing approx 10 per cent a month to approx 70 to 80 per cent in December. Our normal year full year load factor is approx 110 per cent. (3rd and 4th berth occupancy which is normally kids)”
95%+ Vaccinated and More Frequent Crew Testing
While Royal Caribbean does allow kids to sail unvaccinated, the shot is required for those over 12 years old, along with crew members. As a result, vaccination rates across the entire ship are often in the mid-to-high 90% range. In addition, crew members who interact with passengers are being tested every three days:
“With a typical sailing having anywhere from 95 to 98 per cent fully vaccinated onboard population and all guests tested before boarding and all crew tested weekly with front of house staff now being tested every 3 days and everyone wearing masks the vast majority of the time, along with social distancing, sanitizing etc we now have a “positivity” rate way below the national rate and way below our big home port states such as Florida, California, Texas etc and way below Broward and Miami Dade in Florida the two counties that are home to of our biggest home ports of Miami and Port Everglades.”
Positive Rates Below What’s on Land
Between testing and vaccination requirements, Bayley says that the positive rate on the ship is far below what’s seen in many places on land. This is even in the case of the larger outbreaks seen on ships like Symphony of the Seas:
“We are seeing increases in positivity rates with some ships currently close to 1 per cent (please note Florida positivity rate is 5 percent which is pretty good relative to others) and recently Symphony of the Seas was in the media spotlight with 48 positive cases (mainly guests) which was less than 1 per cent of the onboard population (for example 1 per cent positivity rate is 60 people from a onboard population of 6,000). Also Odyssey of the Seas has 50 positive cases mainly crew with a onboard population of over 5,000 plus, so approx 1 per cent positivity rate.”
Seeing Mild Cases on Ships
One key feature of the Omicron variant seems to be that it is resulting in more mild cases. While his comments were prefaced by explaining it’s not a scientific observation, Mr. Bayley did say that Royal Caribbean is seeing mild or asymptomatic cases:
“What else do we see ! 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. It really does seem as though the virus (if vaccinated) has morphed to something more like a mild cold! (Second notice this is not in anyway a statement based on science but simply what we are seeing and hearing from our operations in this environment).”
“As all this continues we see various destinations responding to their concern over the new variant which has resulted in isolated cases of ports closing temporarily for cruise access if either the destination or the ship has elevated positivity rates.”
Details on What Cruise Lines See Is Welcome
It’s insightful to see some “color” behind the recent rise of cases aboard cruise ships, and wish other cruise lines would do the same. It would be nice to have more transparent data from the CDC and lines surrounding case numbers. For the moment, it’s obvious that COVID continues to have a major impact on ships, even if it might be less than what’s seen on land thanks to testing and vaccinations.
You can view the CEO’s complete statement below: