With the highly-transmissible and possibly vaccine-resistant Omicron variant fueling a new wave of COVID-19 across the nation, infections are beginning to crop up on cruise ships. This, despite the fact that cruise companies’ policies require that all eligible passengers be fully vaccinated and test negative prior to boarding, and that all crew also be fully vaccinated.
Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises have all seen clusters of cases emerge aboard one or more of their vessels in recent days. While it’s suspected that Omicron is responsible for causing the breakthrough infections, it hasn’t been definitively identified.
Because the cruise lines already have comprehensive protections in place, including vaccination and testing requirements, designed to avoid allowing COVID-19 onboard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun investigations into the sudden rash of cruise-ship cases.
CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle told USA Today on Thursday, “We are still learning how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and how well available vaccines and medications work against it.” So, the agency has begun working with public health experts and cruise industry partners to study the strain’s behavior.
In order to receive approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to resume sailing earlier this year, cruise lines operating in the U.S. had to implement specific sets of health and safety protocols to ensure that any potential incidents of COVID-19 infection could be effectively contained and treated. In short, they were well-prepared for such contingencies.
In each instance, these COVID-19 protocols were triggered, including contact-tracing, and isolating all passengers and crew who tested positive. The number of cases onboard also caused portions of the ships’ itineraries to be scrapped when their intended ports of call refused to grant them entry.
Aboard MSC Seashore, 28 fully-vaccinated passengers and crew members (or, 0.59 percent of the ship’s onboard population) this week tested positive through routine monitoring during its Caribbean sailing. MSC Cruises spokesperson Stephen Schuler said that health protocols were immediately implemented and that most of those who tested positive are asymptomatic, though some are experiencing mild symptoms.
Carnival Freedom also detected a “small number” of COVID-positive individuals aboard its current sailing—an eight-day, Christmas-themed, Caribbean cruise that departed Miami on December 18, according to CruiseMapper. Unfortunately, two of its scheduled ports of call—in Bonaire and Aruba—turned the ship away, denying permission to dock.
Carnival spokesperson AnneMarie Mathews didn’t disclose the exact number of cases found aboard Carnival Freedom when she spoke with USA Today. She did say that, when scheduled port visits get canceled, the cruise line will attempt to arrange docking at an alternative destination.
Earlier this week, Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas was also denied docking at its planned ports of call in Curacao and Aruba because 55 people of its guests and crew tested positive for COVID-19 during routine testing. The holiday-themed, eight-day sailing is due to return to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, having only been able to visit one of its scheduled Caribbean destinations and spending the rest of the time at sea.
“We are working closely with the CDC and local health authorities in all ports and destinations that we visit,” Mathews emphasized. “Unfortunately, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant may shape how some destination authorities view even a small number of cases, even when they are being managed with our vigorous protocols. Some destinations have limited medical resources and are focused on managing their own local response to the variant.”