While COVID-19 transmission is still present on cruise ships, protocols to mitigate its spread work to make cruise ships safer.
Capt. Aimee Treffiletti, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maritime unit, told USA Today that the measures have “absolutely” worked to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on cruise ships. Vaccines, testing, social distancing and facial masks are part of cruise ship protocols from the CDC.
However, cruise ships do still have the potential to spread COVID-19.
“We've never said that cruising will be a zero-risk activity,” said Treffiletti. “I think we've all always expected that cases would be identified.”
Treffiletti said that the CDC has not seen medical resources overwhelmed on ships nor high rates of hospitalizations.
“So, I think we can consider that a success,” she said.
According to USA Today, there were 452 confirmed cases of coronavirus on cruise ships reported by cruise lines in the two-month period spanning from when the first cruise sailed with paying passengers on June 26 through Aug. 26.
Of the 452 cases, 146 were among crew members and 306 were among passengers on 57 ships.
Cases among crew and passengers were reported on Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and others.
Although the CDC repeatedly told USA Today it does not have a count of how many people sailed on cruise ships in total during the period, Cruise Lines International Association, offered a conservative estimate that 262,000 passengers sailed between June 26 and Aug. 26 on member cruises. This figure does not include crew.
The association's cruise lines make up more than 90 percent of ocean-going cruise capacity, said USA Today.
“The relatively low occurrence of COVID-19 during that period, particularly when compared to the rest of the country, further demonstrates the leadership of the cruise industry and the effectiveness of the science-backed protocols that have enabled a successful return to operations around the world,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for the association.
Around 1 in 68 people in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19 during the two-month period, said USA Today.
The CDC issued a “Level 3: High Level of COVID-19” notice warning on Aug. 20 for cruise travel that was still in place this month.
“Unlike other forms of travel, a cruise ship is more like congregate residential setting where thousands of travelers (passengers and crew) are living for multiple days (or months for crew) on the same ship: eating, sleeping, and participating in activities together in one location.
COVID-19, like other illnesses, can spread quickly in group settings like cruise ships,” Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, said in an email to USA Today.
Real cruise fans don’t appear to be deterred by the possibility of infection.
Alex Heller and his husband Michael Bonham often go on Royal Caribbean International cruises. Since the pandemic began, they have been on five cruises, they told USA Today. They plan to go on four more this year.
When they are on a Royal Caribbean International ship, Heller and Bonham are required, along with all passengers older than 12, to show proof of vaccination. Passengers ages 2 to 11 must provide a negative COVID-19 test.
Heller said they have felt safe due to this precaution. He also said he would not feel safe without protocols in place.
“On one of the trips, we stayed a few nights in Florida after we disembarked,” Heller said. “It felt like Florida had hardly any restrictions and a few people even approached us with snide remarks about wearing our masks, so we actually felt safer on the ship than we did on land.”
During its third-quarter earnings call on Oct. 30, Royal Caribbean Group's chief financial officer Jason Liberty shared that out of 500,000 passengers who have sailed with the brand globally, only 150 have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and development of variants of concern, including the delta variant, CDC has continued to collaborate with cruise ship operators to provide safe and healthy cruising environments for crew and passengers,” Shockey said.
As of Tuesday, around 15 cruise ships tracked by the CDC had reported COVID-19 cases.