By Hayley Fowler Miami Herald December 30, 2021.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to avoid cruise travel — regardless of vaccination status — amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases propelled by the omicron variant. In doing so, the CDC changed the COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level for cruise travel from a Level 3 to a Level 4, which the agency described as the “highest level.”
“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and 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,” the CDC said in its guidelines updated on Dec. 30.
Officials said anyone who does decide to travel on a cruise should be fully vaccinated with their booster shot, if eligible. A person is considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after they receive either a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson) or the second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna).
Individuals who have only received one dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine and have recovered from the virus are not considered fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. All cruise ship passengers, even if they are fully vaccinated, should also get tested for the coronavirus one to three days before the trip and between three and five days after they return, the CDC said. The agency additionally recommends that passengers who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus quarantine for five days after they return. Travelers who may face an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should avoid travel on all types of cruise ships regardless of whether they are vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Omicron Spurs Spike in Cases On Cruises
The number of COVID-19 cases on board cruise ships has swelled in recent weeks — due in large part to the omicron variant. At least three COVID-19 outbreaks have hit ships operated by Carnival and Royal Caribbean that left ports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale over the last week, the Miami Herald reported on Sunday, Dec. 26. That includes a Carnival Freedom cruise that docked in Miami after it was denied entry into Bonaire and Aruba because of an undisclosed number of COVID-19 cases among the ship’s 3,609 passengers and crew members as well as an Odyssey of the Seas ship that left from Fort Lauderdale and was similarly denied entry into Curacao and Aruba.
Federal officials also said more cruises are now meeting the threshold for investigation by the CDC, meaning coronavirus cases have been reported among 0.10% or more of passengers (on a ship with 6,500 passengers, that would equate to seven or more cases) and among at least one member of the crew. Nearly 90 cruise ships were under investigation by the CDC as of Dec. 28, Business Insider reported.
Cruise Industry Responds.
The CDC’s decision to update its travel recommendations for cruises was met with ire by the Cruise Lines International Association, one of the largest trade associations for cruise lines in the world.
“The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard — far fewer than on land — and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” the association said in a statement. The statement went on to say that cruises offer “one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus,” including greater levels of testing and vaccination than other modes of travel.
Royal Caribbean Group echoed that sentiment in a Dec. 30 news release, saying “cruising remains one of the few places one can vacation knowing that almost everyone you meet is fully vaccinated.” “We don’t like to see even one case, but our experience is a fraction of the comparable statistics of virtually any other comparable location or industry,” Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said in the release.
“Few businesses are subject to such intense scrutiny, regulation, and disclosure requirements by so many authorities, and we welcome that scrutiny because of our commitment to safety.” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson said in the release case counts have spiked on Royal Caribbean cruises but noted “the level of severity is significantly milder.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.