How cruise lines are adapting to COVID-19 in the age of Omicron

Versie Dortch

The pandemic is upending the cruise industry once again.

In late December, just six months after cruise ships resumed sailing from United States ports, onboard cases of COVID-19 began to skyrocket—rising from 162 in the first two weeks of the month to 5,000 in the latter half of the month. As U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky recently told lawmakers, it was about a 30-fold increase.

In the weeks that followed, the CDC warned travelers to avoid cruises even if they’re fully vaccinated. There has been a flurry of cancellations, including several Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line sailings, because of crew members calling in sick and destinations closing their ports to cruises. The ships that do set sail have had to tighten their COVID-19 protocols—which include vaccine mandates, testing, and masking—and make last-minute itinerary changes.

Further complicating matters, the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order—a framework of mandatory safety procedures for foreign-flagged ships in U.S. waters—expired on January 15. Following that guidance will now be optional for cruise ships, meaning they will be able to chart their own safety course.

For people who planned their trips months or even years before Omicron’s arrival, these rapidly changing circumstances have proven almost impossible to navigate around.

“People traveling at all right now have to be very flexible,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of online industry publication Cruise Critic. “Dig into what your cruise line is requiring. What was the policy a month ago may not be the policy today.”

So how can travelers make sense of it all? Here’s what experts say.

How are COVID-19 protocols changing?

Eager to shed their early pandemic reputation as floating disease carriers, cruise lines worked with the CDC to institute fairly rigorous onboard COVID-19 protocols—the agency’s condition for allowing ships to sail from U.S. ports again. The CDC laid out guidance for testing crew and passengers and how to deal with outbreaks. Most cruise lines also instituted vaccine mandates.

(These photos show the surreal world of cruising during the pandemic’s height.)

Not much will change for the ships that participate in the CDC’s new voluntary program. They will still report COVID-19 data to the agency daily and follow specific testing regimes for passengers and crew. Cruise lines won’t get to choose which protocols to follow either, says Captain Aimee Treffiletti, head of the CDC’s maritime unit. If they choose to participate, they must agree to everything.

Norwegian Cruise Line has already indicated that it will join the CDC program. Brian Salerno, senior vice president of global maritime policy for the Cruise Lines International Association, expects many cruise lines will ultimately take part. He argues that cruise lines have often gone beyond CDC requirements—installing air purification technology or even onboard PCR testing laboratories—and aren’t likely to start slacking now.

“It’s a business imperative to do this right,” Salerno says. “Nobody’s going to relax during Omicron.”

It’s also a matter of public image. The CDC plans to continue issuing each ship a color-coded status that anyone can access to check transmission at any given time. Ships that are shaded green have no reported cases of COVID-19, while those that are shaded red are under CDC investigation. Cruise lines that aren’t part of the voluntary program will be shaded gray. Those ships may have their own health and safety protocols, but they haven’t been reviewed by the CDC.

“Nobody wants to be gray,” Salerno says. “Obviously everybody wants to be green.”

But with Omicron cases soaring, why is the CDC loosening its grip on the cruise industry? Treffiletti says the agency is confident that it has identified the best practices for mitigating transmission aboard a cruise ship—which she emphasizes was done in partnership with cruise lines. Now, she says, the CDC has decided to flex its regulatory authority “on a case-by-case basis rather than shutting down all the cruise ships at once.”

The CDC will still be able to board any ship in U.S. waters and conduct inspections, she points out. Ships that aren’t participating in the voluntary program will also have to report every case of COVID-19—just not every day—and will still be subject to the agency’s order requiring masks on public transportation.

How do the vaccine mandates work?

Most cruise lines currently require all passengers, including eligible children, to be fully vaccinated (meaning two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, one dose of Johnson & Johnson, or a WHO-approved equivalent). Salerno says the vaccination rates aboard cruise ships right now are close to 95 percent for passengers and crew members.

Some companies do accommodate children who haven’t gotten a jab: Royal Caribbean and Carnival, for example, require all guests older than 12 to be vaccinated, while younger passengers can board with a negative test. Disney Cruise Lines requires everyone over the age of five to be vaccinated. (The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

Cruise lines also align their vaccination policies with those of their destinations. So even though the United Kingdom considers children fully vaccinated after just one dose of an mRNA vaccine, a ship that sets sail to the Caribbean may only allow children who have had two doses.

Meanwhile, as Omicron spreads, some cruise lines have begun to require booster shots. Beginning February 1, Viking will require anyone who is eligible for a booster dose to get it at least 14 days before setting sail from the U.S. In addition, the CDC recently emphasized that being “up to date” on vaccines includes a booster dose.

Omicron is even more transmissible than the Delta variant—and better at evading vaccine immunity. But while the vaccines are no longer as effective at preventing you from getting infected, they are still the best protection, says Kathryn Willebrand, an epidemiologist who recently co-authored a study of COVID-19 transmission aboard cruise ships with infectious disease physician Lauren Pischel.

Willebrand points out that vaccines are still effective at preventing severe illness—which is especially important when you’re in the middle of the ocean on a boat whose medical staff might be overwhelmed or sick themselves. “You don’t want to need medical care when you’re far from home,” she says.

(Can booster shots protect you from Omicron?)

How often will you be tested?

Cruise lines have been requiring passengers and crew to test before boarding a ship, although specific requirements differ. Some only accept PCR tests, while others will accept the results of a rapid antigen test—in some cases only if the test is overseen by a health professional. And while some companies require you to get tested before you leave home, others administer tests at the terminal prior to boarding.

Crew members are generally subjected to routine testing throughout the voyage because they’re particularly vulnerable to infection. They spend more time on the ship, in closer quarters, and tend to have more interaction with others. But passengers might be required to test before any shore excursion if the port of call requires it, or if they develop symptoms during the trip.

If you don’t have any symptoms, you generally don’t have to be tested before disembarking the ship. Instead, Treffiletti and the CDC recommend getting tested five days after your trip. However, Gray Faust cautions that if you’re flying internationally, your final destination may require a negative test—or the cruise line may administer tests to everyone if there’s a particularly bad COVID-19 outbreak on board.

(5 things to know about COVID-19 tests in the age of Omicron.)

What happens if there’s an outbreak?

Still, COVID-19 has proven adept at slipping past these protocols, particularly in the time of Omicron. Since COVID-19 is airborne and cruise ships are enclosed environments, the boats are higher risk environments for transmission, says Willebrand. Thousands of people pass through dining rooms, casinos, and other areas where virus particles may be hanging in the air.

Under the CDC guidance, cruise lines are supposed to educate both crew and passengers to identify and report COVID-19 symptoms. If someone onboard develops symptoms, they are tested and isolated until the results come back or until they’re no longer infectious. Those who are still infectious at the end of a journey are typically required to quarantine on shore—and Treffiletti says the CDC can work with cruise lines to facilitate that.

Since passengers are vaccinated, however, close contacts don’t necessarily have to quarantine unless they begin to develop symptoms. Gray Faust says cruise lines have been successful at contact tracing to notify those close contacts for the same reason that cruise ships are so vulnerable to transmission—they are closed communities.

“If you go to a restaurant and the person next to you is sick, you won’t know that,” Gray Faust says. “But on a ship, they do go back and find people. That is something that the cruise ships have developed that really is beyond what other types of travel have done.”

All of this relies on the honor system. Much as we’ve seen on land, there’s always the risk that your fellow seafarers may refuse to comply with mask mandates or hide their symptoms from crew to avoid quarantine. Cruise lines have the power to ask those passengers to disembark and travel home at their own expense.

Still, those rules aren’t always enforced—which is why experts say that the decision to set sail ultimately comes down to your own risk tolerance.

(Here’s what you need to know about traveling during Omicron.)

What can you do to ensure a smoother trip?

Although the CDC recommends that people avoid cruises, Treffiletti says that there are some things you can do to help mitigate your risk if you do decide to travel.

For one, before setting sail, check the color-coded chart on the CDC website to see if your ship is participating in the agency’s voluntary COVID-19 program. If so, you’ll be able to see whether there are any outbreaks on board. If things look grim, most cruise lines have implemented fairly flexible rebooking and cancellation policies.

If you’re just booking now, research the protocols of each cruise line to see if they align with your own comfort level. Gray Faust recommends purchasing trip delay and COVID-19 insurance—an extra cost that will be worth it if you get infected and can’t board your ship.

Gray Faust says your packing list should also account for uncertainties. She recommends packing extra clothing and medication in case you are quarantined at any point. If you can snag them, toss in some extra KN95 masks and rapid antigen tests, too.

But most of all, Gray Faust says cruisers need to go into a trip accepting that there will be health protocols in place—which might change as conditions worsen or improve—and that they’re there to keep you safe.

“You need to be OK with that,” she says. “You can still have a great trip. But you’re protecting yourself and other people by wearing masks and by getting your vaccines.”

National Geographic Expeditions and Adventures by Disney offer cruise departures to many destinations around the world. The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.

Amy McKeever is a senior writer and editor at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter.

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