CDC Renews Advisory to Avoid Cruise Travel due to Spread of Omicron

CDC advises against cruise travel due to increase in cases linked to Omicron
Cruise ships at PortMiami (file photo)

Published Dec 30, 2021 3:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased its warning against cruise ship travel today, December 30, recommending that travelers avoid cruise travel at this time regardless of their vaccination status. Responding to the rapid increase in the number of cases linked to the spread of the Omicron variant and the record daily number of COVID-19 cases, the CDC updated its advisory from level three to level four, the highest warning level under its system of alerts.

“This determination was made in response to an increase in COVID-19 cases occurring on cruise ships, in the United States, and around the world.  In the United States, the 7-day daily average of cases is 240,000 per day, an increase of about 60 percent over the previous week,” said a CDC spokesperson,

The CDC warns that “even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants,” saying that the CDC believes, “the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships.” While they stopped short of the March 2020 move to suspend all cruising, the CDC in its updated information tells travelers if they are traveling on a cruise ship they should be fully vaccinated and receive a booster dose if eligible. They also advise testing one to three days before travel, wearing masks and social distance on their trips, and testing again three to five days after their trip. Passengers not fully vaccinated are also advised to self-quarantine for a full five days after cruise travel.

Supporting its recommendations, the CDC reports, “Between November 30 and December 14, 2021, 162 COVID-19 cases were reported to CDC by cruise ships operating in U.S. waters. Between December 15-29, 2021, 5,013 COVID-19 cases were reported to CDC, 31 times the number of cases from the first two weeks of December to the last two weeks of December.”

All cruise ships operating from U.S. ports are also required to register with the CDC and report illness aboard their ships. The CDC’s latest update shows 26 cruise ships are being investigated after reporting at least 0.10 percent of cases among their passengers or a case among their crew, while a further 65 cruises ships continue to be monitored after an investigation following the reporting of COVID-19 cases. That represents more than 80 percent of the 110 cruise ships currently registered with the CDC.

“We are disappointed and disagree with the decision to single out the cruise industry,” Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) responded. The trade group argues that the industry has the most comprehensive programs and testing is far higher than in the general public. They responded by saying that the cruise industry continues to achieve significantly lower rates of occurrence of COVID-19, stating that it is 33 percent lower than onshore. A CLIA spokesperson said the CDC reported a 31 percent increase in cases on cruise ships in the past two weeks, while the U.S. infection rate increased 153 percent over the same time period.

“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,” wrote CLIA in its statement.

Earlier in the day, the Royal Caribbean Group, which has a fleet of 60 cruises ships in five brands, issued a statement promoting its success in handling the virus. “The numbers indicate an increase in people testing positive without a corresponding increase in people becoming ill. Since cruising restarted in the U.S. in June 2021, the Royal Caribbean Group has carried 1.1 million guests with 1,745 people testing positive – a positivity rate of 0.02 percent. Furthermore, the vast majority of those cases had no symptoms or only mild symptoms, with only 41 people needing hospitalization,” the company said.

The CDC’s warning comes as individual destinations have also been reacting to the growth in cases. Puerto Rico this week increased its testing requirements causing many cruise ships to suspend calls in San Juan, while there have been several reports of Caribbean islands turning away cruise ships that report COVID-19 cases on board. Mexico’s government, however, intervened earlier this week and said its ports would remain open to cruise ships.