All U.S.-Based Cruise Ships Join CDC's New Voluntary Health Program

cruise ships join CDC voluntary health protocol program
Cruise ships have returned to the major U.S. ports (Port Canaveral photo)

Published Feb 22, 2022 7:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

All the cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports opted to join the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new voluntary program for the management and reporting of COVID-19. Cruise lines had until the end of the day last Friday to inform the CDC of their decision and the move comes after months of an often combative relationship between the industry and the health authority.

The CDC published the update to the program on its website today reporting that a total of 111 cruise ships have opted into its new program. None of the cruise ships opted out of the program. During the day on February 18, the last day to inform the CDC of their decision, Carnival Corporation reported that its brands would participate as did Royal Caribbean Group. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings had previously announced their intention to join the voluntary program.

Almost all the cruise ships are also reporting that they will operate under what the CDC calls “highly vaccinated” status. To qualify, ships must have at least 95 percent of their passengers and 95 percent of crew who are fully vaccinated. The cruise lines have universally declared their intent to maintain their vaccination requirements for the foreseeable future. MSC Cruises' current policy requires all passengers ages 12 and above must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and submit a negative test before boarding, which is why the CDC reported that MSC’s ships are the only ones not to meet its standard of “highly vaccinated.” MSC however recently announced that it will extend its vaccination requirement to age five and up starting in late April.

The CDC is encouraging ships to move to an even higher standard where both crew and passengers are fully up to date with vaccines meaning that they have also had booster shots if qualified. In last-minute clarifications to the program, the CDC provided guidance for cruise ship operators on how to calculate the dates of eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine booster doses and “up to date” status. It also confirmed that children under the age of five years who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations would not be counted when determining the percentage of passengers on board who are fully vaccinated.

The industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association said that the CDC’s recent steps, including lowering the travel warning that had told people to avoid cruises, is a step in the right direction. CLIA said the CDC was recognizing the effectiveness of the cruise sector’s health and safety protocols after previously saying the “CDC guidance appears out of step with the actual public health conditions on cruise ships and unnecessary.”

As with onshore which has seen a strong drop in the number of cases of the virus, cruise ships are also reporting a decrease in the number of positive tests. CDC data now shows that 32 cruise ships have no reported cases while an additional 36 had a limited number of new cases below the CDC’s threshold for investigation. Currently, 46 cruise ships are in the category that they have met the threshold for investigation compared to 97 out of 110 cruise ships that had reported cases in the past week as of the beginning of January 2022.

While announcing that they would participate in the voluntary CDC program, the major cruise lines also are moving to relax some of the restrictions on passengers aboard the ships. Carnival Cruise Line said starting March 1 it will not require fully vaccinated passengers in most locations to use face coverings, but that they would still be expected in certain venues. Similarly, Royal Caribbean International also said that it was no longer requiring fully vaccinated passengers to use masks onboard but that they should still be worn in terminals and where required by destinations. Norwegian Cruise Line had earlier announced it would also reduce masking requirements.