Almost every cruise ship reports COVID-19 cases onboard, despite precautions

Almost every cruise ship operating in U.S. waters reported recent COVID-19 cases among passengers or crew, despite extensive precautions to guard against the spread of the virus — including vaccination, testing and face-covering requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now is advising people to avoid cruising, even if they are fully vaccinated.

As of Monday, the CDC listed 91 ships with a "yellow" status and three ships with an "orange" status, both classifications indicating that there were recent COVID-19 cases on the ships. The CDC tracks ships operating or planning to operate in U.S. waters.

All 10 ships based at Port Canaveral — which is considered the world's second-busiest cruise port, based on passenger volume — are in yellow status.

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Generally, ships with yellow status recently reported at least 0.1% of their passengers had COVID-19 or a "COVID-19-like illness," triggering a CDC investigation. For example, that would be five or more passengers on a ship with 5,000 passengers, or three or more passengers on a ship with 3,000 passengers.

The Disney Fantasy is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.
The Disney Fantasy is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.

What does each color status mean?

One or more cases reported among the crew also puts a ship in the yellow status.

Orange status means the ship has reported cases of COVID-19, but is below the threshold for CDC investigation.

Just 16 ships the CDC tracks nationwide had a "green" status — indication the ship has no reports of cases of COVID-19 or COVID-19-like illness. Fifteen of those are ships that are not currently sailing with passengers, and have only crews onboard. ResidenSea's The World is the only cruise ship operating with passengers on the green list.

"Red" status means that a ship has sustained transmission of COVID-19 or that has the potential for COVID-19 cases to overwhelm onboard medical facilities. No ships are on red status at this time.

The CDC does not publicly disclose the specific number of cases on a ship, and Port Canaveral officials said they do not get the such details from the cruise lines, either.

The Port Canaveral lineup now includes Carnival's Elation, Magic and Mardi Gras; Disney's Dream and Fantasy; MSC's Meraviglia; Norwegian's Escape; and Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, Independence of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas. Additionally, Carnival's Liberty is scheduled to join the lineup on Jan. 24.

CDC: 'Avoid cruise travel'

The CDC on Thursday updated its COVID-19 "travel health notice" level for cruising from Level 3 to Level 4, the most severe level, advising people to "avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status."

"This reflects increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the omicron variant," the CDC said in a statement on its website. "Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants. 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."

After the CDC issued its update, Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said the CDC’s announcement "is not surprising, considering the rapid increase in community positivity rates."

"Industry safety protocols and practices have been continuously refined since the restart of cruising in July," Murray said in a statement. "Cruise ships are sailing with some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation of any industry or business segment. We continue to work closely with our cruise partners and will support them as necessary.”

The Carnival Mardi Gras is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.
The Carnival Mardi Gras is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.

Despite the rising case counts, and with the highly contagious omicron variant in play, the Cruise Lines International Association trade group disputed the CDC's decision to raise its warning on cruises.

"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. "No setting can be immune from this virus. However, it is also the case that cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus."

The association said cruise ships "offer a highly controlled environment, with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land."

The association said cruise industry protocols "are unique in their approach to effectively monitor, detect and respond to potential cases of COVID-19. Protocols encompass the entirety of the cruise experience, incorporating testing, vaccination, screening, sanitation, mask-wearing and other science-backed measures. Many of our members have announced additional measures in response to the omicron variant, including strengthening testing, masking and other requirements, as well as encouraging booster vaccine doses for those eligible."

Changing ship itineraries

Although cruises have not been canceled, some ships have had to alter their itineraries because of COVID-19 restrictions in their scheduled ports of call.

The Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.
The Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas is among 10 cruise ships based at Port Canaveral.

The Port Canaveral-based Disney Fantasy, for example, did not allow passengers ashore at a scheduled stop in St. Thomas on Thursday.

In a statement, Disney Cruise Line said: "The Disney Fantasy did not call on St. Thomas last week, due to both an increase in COVID-19 cases on the island and a small number of fully vaccinated crew members and guests — less than 1% of those on board — who were in isolation for COVID-19. Those affected by those breakthrough cases were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, and we followed CDC protocols for managing cases on board."

Disney said it was the only such COVID-19-related itinerary change the line has experienced.

The Royal Caribbean Group on Thursday reported that "the company is experiencing service disruptions at selected destinations and, to date, has canceled or significantly modified 16 destination calls out of 331. The company expects these disruptions to continue in the near term, and then decline as the world adjusts to the current trends."

The cruise line also said it had "experienced a decline in bookings and increased cancellations for near-term sailings, but to a lesser degree than that experienced with the delta variant. Load factors for sailings in the first half of 2022 remain below historical levels, as expected."

However, the cruise line noted that "sailings for the second half of 2022 continue to be booked within historical ranges, at higher prices with and without future cruise credits, with strong demand from the critical U.S. market."

Maritime attorney's criticism

Among those highly critical of the cruise industry is Miami-based maritime lawyer Jim Walker, who has represents passengers and crew members injured or assaulted on cruise ships.

Walker has termed cruise ships as "super-spreaders" of COVID-19, and cited as an example New Year's Eve parties aboard the ships, with many unmasked passengers.

"Not only are the vast majority of cruise ships which are sailing from U.S. ports and are under the CDC’s jurisdiction under yellow or orange warnings, but the average number of positive cases per ship has increased," Walker said in a recent blog post. "Unfortunately, there are few reliable and accurate sources of information where families thinking of taking a leisure cruise during a pandemic can go to locate candid information which could affect their family’s health and safety."

According to USA Today, from Nov. 30 through Dec. 14, cruise ships operating in U.S. waters reported 162 cases of COVID-19 to the CDC. From Dec. 15 to Dec. 29, cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters reported 5,013 COVID-19 cases to the CDC.

In a statement issued Thursday, Dr. Calvin Johnson, chief medical officer of Royal Caribbean Group, said: "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. For example, even before omicron, we have been giving all our crew members booster shots as they became eligible."

Disney said in its statement that "we continue to operate with multiple layers of health and safety protocols in place, such as requiring vaccinations, PCR tests at the port prior to embarkation for all guests, testing of our crew multiple times per week, enhanced cleaning protocols and a requirement that masks be worn in all indoor spaces.”

The Cruise Line International Association statement said that "while we are disappointed and disagree with the (CDC) decision to single out the cruise industry — an industry that continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors — CLIA and our oceangoing cruise line members remain committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety."

Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at Twitter: @bydaveberman.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: COVID-19 cases reported onboard on almost all cruise ships