The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says it is “perplexing” that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now advising people against going on cruises regardless of their vaccination status.
On Dec. 30, the CDC raised its travel warning for cruises to the highest level, “Level 4,” as the agency is investigating dozens of ships that have had COVID-19 outbreaks amid a worldwide surge of the Omicron variant.
The CDC now calls cruising a high-risk activity, even among those who have had their full series of COVID-19 shots.
“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,” an advisory read.
But CLIA, though committed to working collaboratively with the CDC to safely restart the cruising sector, isn’t buying the CDC’s warning.
“…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,” CLIA said in a statement on Dec. 30.
“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. 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.”
Why cruising is safe
There are several factors that make the cruise industry unique in its approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
The cruise industry, for one, is the only industry in the U.S. travel and tourism sector that requires both vaccinations and testing for crew and guests, CLIA points out.
Vaccination rates onboard a cruise ship typically are upwards of 95 per cent—significantly higher than the overall U.S. population which is hovering at around 62 per cent.
In the U.S. alone, the cruise sector administers nearly 10 million tests per week—21 times the rate of testing in the U.S., CLIA says.
The Association’s latest data also show that, even with higher rates of testing, the cruise industry continues to achieve significantly lower rates of occurrence of COVID-19— “33 per cent lower than onshore.”
“Protocols encompass the entirety of the cruise experience, incorporating testing, vaccination, screening, sanitation, mask-wearing and other science-backed measures,” CLIA says.
And ships have had time to perfect their programs: CLIA says more than 100 cruise ships have returned to U.S. waters, carrying nearly more than one million people from a U.S. port since late June 2021.
“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,” CLIA said.
242 ships sailing this month
According to the CDC’s colour-coding system, a cruise ship may be determined to be “yellow” – and, therefore, subject to CDC observation – if a threshold of 0.10 percent or more passengers (i.e., 7 out of 6,500) have tested positive in the last seven days, or if even just one crewmember tests positive.
The CDC says that cruise ships operating in U.S. waters reported about 5,000 COVID cases between Dec. 15 - 29, which is a major spike compared with the first two weeks of the month when just 162 cases were reported.
The agency is currently probing into COVID-19 cases on more than 90 ships, Reuters reports.
“It is especially important that travellers who are at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC said in its updated advisory.
Despite the CDC’s upgraded warning, cruise companies – many of which strengthened their onboard mask-wearing policies last month in response to Omicron – are doing business as usual.
After the CDC’s updated warning was issued, cruises still departed from New Orleans and Florida, according to reports.
This month alone, 242 cruise ships across 68 brands are still set to operate around the world, which is the highest number of ships to sail since the start of the pandemic, according to data compiled by Cruise Industry News.
Over the new few weeks, Royal Caribbean will sail 20 vessels, the most of any brand, while Carnival and MSC Cruises will operate 17 and 13 ships.
For those who decide to cruise, the CDC is advising passengers to get vaccinated before their trip and receive a booster dose if eligible.
Masks should also be worn in shared spaces, and those who are not fully vaccinated should self-quarantine for five days after travel, the agency says.
Also, people who cruise should get tested one to three days before departing, and three to five days after their sailing, regardless of their vaccination status or symptoms, says the CDC.