With the Omicron variant having already spread quickly across the U.S. to become the country’s dominant COVID-19 strain in a matter of weeks, more people are coming up positive aboard cruise ships during routine, mid-sailing testing rounds.
USA Today reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently monitoring 92 passenger cruise ships for COVID-19 or, in some cases, investigating infection that’s already been identified on board.
Even with the strict vaccination and testing requirements, masking, social distancing and other anti-COVID measures set out by the CDC, it’s always been anticipated that some coronavirus cases would find their way onto cruise ships.
CDC monitoring or investigation of a cruise ship doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a large number of COVID-19 cases on board. Just one case of the virus or of COVID-like symptoms is enough to warrant the CDC’s involvement.
Onboard outbreaks are considered an inevitability that’s been factored into the provisions outlined in the CDC’s ‘Conditional Sail Order’—a set of enhanced health and safety protocols that cruise lines are required to prove that they’re implementing effectively in order to earn approval to resume operations amid the pandemic.
Last week, commenting on case clusters discovered aboard Royal Caribbean, Carnival and MSC vessels, CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle told USA Today that, “cruise travel is not a zero-risk activity.” He confirmed that the chance of viral transmission is higher than usual for cruise passengers and crew, “because the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.”
On Tuesday, Daigle told the outlet that, “(The) CDC has been managing COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships since this summer when cruise ships started sailing with passengers.” He said that the health agency is working with affected vessels and cruise lines to make sure that any potential for onboard spread is being mitigated most effectively.
The agency maintains a roster of cruise vessels currently under observation, which is routinely updated according to each ship’s investigation status. Ships are sorted into one of five color-coded status categories: Green, Orange, Yellow, Red and Gray.
A Green status indicates no reported COVID-19 or CLI (COVID-19-like illness) cases on board. Orange means there have been cases reported, but infection levels fall below the threshold for CDC investigation. Yellow means that there are cases on board, enough to warrant CDC investigation. Red translates to “sustained transmission of COVID-19 or CLI” on board with the potential to overwhelm the ship’s onboard medical center resources, but no ships are currently classified as Red. Grey status is applied to ships where health and safety protocols have not been confirmed by the CDC, and there are presently none of these on the list either.
Despite the fact that the CDC is monitoring so many ships for viral transmission at the moment, it appears unlikely that the cruise industry will suffer another shutdown akin to the one instituted at the start of the pandemic.
For those booked to travel aboard an upcoming cruise, Omicron presents fresh cause for concern and calls into question whether it’s wise to proceed with their sailing plans. The variant is showing itself to be more vaccine-resistant, though the vaccinated cruise-ship passengers and crew who’ve tested COVID-positive are largely asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.
Still, the CDC is recommending that people who aren’t fully vaccinated avoid cruising (although most cruise lines already require that all eligible guests be vaccinated), and says that cruise-goers who are already vaccinated should get a booster shot prior to departure, if eligible. Daigle said the agency also advises that people who are at increased risk of severe illness (due to advanced age, existing medical conditions, etc.) avoid cruising altogether, regardless of their vaccination status.
For more information, visit cdc.gov/quarantine/cruise/cruise-ship-color-status.html.