Health

Cases rise, criticism mounts, but ships keep cruising

“The
captain announced that five people had tested positive for COVID and were
quarantining,” Suphan, a 39-year-old revenue cycle manager, recalled in a
telephone interview. “But, then, talking to the crew, they told me there were
between 100 and 150 crew members who also tested positive, but the captain
didn’t mention that.”

Two
days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans to
avoid travel on cruise ships, regardless of their vaccination status. The
advisory, the agency’s highest coronavirus warning, came in response to a surge
in cases in recent weeks, caused by the spread of the contagious omicron
variant.

But
even as case numbers rise, and criticism mounts about the safety of cruising
and over cruise line protocols in reporting cases to passengers, ships keep
sailing and guests keep embarking, adamant that the onboard environment is safe
because of stringent health and safety requirements, including pre-departure
testing and vaccine mandates.

Consider
the New Year’s Eve festivities held on ships around the world. One day after
the CDC announcement, as dozens of crew members and other passengers were
confined to small cabins, infected and quarantined, thousands of revellers
packed into ship bars, casinos and deck venues, partying like it was 2019.

Harvey
Freid, 56, recently returned from a 17-day sailing to Antarctica, during which
one positive case was reported. But Freid, an avid cruiser, is undeterred and
is scheduled to go on a Caribbean cruise in late January.

“The
cruise ships do a very good job of handling COVID, and I think it’s safer than
my building in Miami and most places that I go on land, because people are
vaccinated and cases are quickly identified and isolated,” he said.

On
Wednesday, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line cancelled several voyages
in response to the growing number of coronavirus cases onboard some of their
ships.

The
cruise industry’s trade group, Cruise Lines International Association, called
the CDC’s warning “perplexing,” and said that cases identified on ships
“consistently make up a slim minority of the total population on board — far
fewer than on land.”

“No
setting can be immune from this virus — however, it is also the case that
cruises provide one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against
the virus,” the group said in a statement.

But
some passengers are starting to question the effectiveness of health and safety
protocols, and say they aren’t being informed of the full extent of coronavirus
cases on board. They say they learn of the positive cases only after returning
home and would have been able to make more informed decisions about their
behaviour and participation in activities, if they had been made more aware.

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When
Suphan booked his vacation, he felt confident that Carnival had good protocols
in place, which included pre-departure testing and requiring vaccines for all
crew and most passengers. But as the ship sailed, Suphan was surprised by the
number of people he met who said they had been exempted from the vaccine
mandate. He said there were not enough crew members to enforce indoor mask
rules for more than 3,000 passengers on board.

Carnival
said only a small number of passengers had been exempted from the vaccination
requirement, but did not specify how many.

Suphan
was also struck, he said, when a crew member told him that several infected crew
were isolating on board when the ship departed from Long Beach, California.

“The
fact that they had infected staff on board when the cruise left Long Beach
means that they knew there was the possibility of more cases coming up after we
left,” Suphan said. “But they still continued with the cruise so they could
take everyone’s money. It feels like a cash grab to maintain payments.”

Carnival
said four asymptomatic crew members were in quarantine when the cruise
departed, while others had been taken off the ship.

REPORTING
POSITIVE CASES

Most
major cruise lines do not publicly announce the number of coronavirus cases on
board their ships, but they are required to submit daily figures to the CDC.
Currently, the agency is monitoring more than 90 cruise ships, because of
reported cases that have reached the agency’s threshold for an investigation.
(An investigation is undertaken when a certain number of cases is reported
among a percentage of passengers.)

Carnival
has denied that the number of infected crew was as high as 100 on Suphan’s
sailing, but has not disclosed the total number of people who tested positive.
On Dec 28, when the cruise was denied entry to port, the Jalisco state health
ministry said 69 cases had been detected among the ship’s 1,450 crew members.
That day, Christine Duffy, the Carnival president, called into the ship and
briefed guests on the situation. Passengers said she did not give updated
figures for positive cases, which many found concerning.

Chris
Chiames, chief communication officer for Carnival, said the company takes its
responsibility for public health “very seriously” and has implemented protocols
that exceed CDC guidance since restarting operations in the United States in
June.

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“The
extreme majority of the crew who test positive are asymptomatic and detected
through the random testing protocol, and they and their close contacts are put
into isolation or quarantine,” Chiames said. “None have required escalated
medical attention or hospitalization, and we have also moved most crew off the
ship to complete their isolation or quarantine.”

Carnival
declined to comment on its policies for reporting daily cases to passengers
onboard its ships, but Chiames said, “the additional complications caused by
the fast-spreading omicron variant will require us to evaluate how to
communicate moving forward.”

TESTING
POSITIVE

For
many, the idea of testing positive for the coronavirus on a cruise ship
conjures up the horrors of the major outbreaks in the early stages of the
pandemic, when thousands of people were confined to their rooms for endless
days while the pandemic raged through the ships.

The
health and safety protocols that allowed US cruise ships to restart operations
in June have helped cruise lines contain the virus and avoid large outbreaks,
and until now, many of the small percentage of guests who tested positive
during sailings have been satisfied with the handling of their cases. Some even
received complimentary food and Champagne in their rooms and were flown home by
charter plane.

But
since more contagious variants like delta and omicron have emerged, causing
cases to increase among passengers and crew, guests have started to complain
about quarantine conditions.

Richard
Lewis, chair and CEO of Savile Row Travel group, recently caught the
coronavirus during two back-to-back Caribbean cruises with his family on board
Celebrity Apex. It was his first cruise during the pandemic and initially, the
protocols met his expectations and the experience felt relatively normal.

On
day two of the cruise, the captain announced that there were two coronavirus
cases on board the ship, which Lewis appreciated for keeping him informed. But
there were no further announcements for the remainder of the week. That is when
both he and his family started noticing changes.

“The
staff were masking up a heck of a lot more, social distancing was being
enforced between passengers and things did not seem right,” he said. “As we
moved into the second week, some of the staff we became friends with disappeared
and we found out they had gone into isolation. Then I started developing
symptoms and tested positive and that’s when it became a nightmare.”

Lewis
was moved from his “concierge class infinite veranda cabin” room to a standard
cabin allotted for quarantines, which he said had a slightly oversized porthole
and no fresh air. He had been under the impression that he could quarantine in
his own room, saying the cruise line encourages people to book bigger rooms in
the event that they will have to isolate.

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Celebrity
Cruises said its policy from day one was to move coronavirus-positive guests to
a quarantine zone. Those identified as close contacts are permitted to isolate
in their state rooms for 24 hours while they are tested and await results.

“Even
the food was hideous,” Lewis said, sharing a picture of fried eggs, hash browns
and bacon strips in a takeout container. “The first two meals were cold and
appeared to have come from the crew canteen. It was only after I kicked up a
fuss that I was allowed to order from the regular room service menu.”

That
day, the captain announced that there were five coronavirus cases on board, but
when Lewis pressed the doctor who visited him, he says he was told there were
16 cases.

“I
know the cruise industry has suffered and I’m so supportive of getting travel
back to normality, but there’s a serious lack of transparency and covering
things up, and hiding them away is not going to help people make informed
decisions,” Lewis said. Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Celebrity Cruises,
said that passenger and crew members are informed when a threshold of virus
cases has been met or exceeded.

“Publishing
a dashboard of daily cases to all persons onboard is a less meaningful
public-health mitigation measure than reinforcing continuous adherence to our
industry-leading health and safety protocols, which has resulted in lower
prevalence rates onboard than those found shoreside,” the company said in a
statement.

Milly
Parkinson, 28, developed coronavirus symptoms one day after returning from an
eight-night Caribbean cruise with friends on board Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of
the Seas. While more than 50 people tested positive for the virus on board the
ship, Royal Caribbean, like most cruise companies, does not require passengers
to test before disembarking at their final destination.

“I
took a test because I had symptoms, but think of all the people who were
asymptomatic who just walked off the ship straight into the grocery store, a
restaurant or a nightclub,” Parkinson said.

“We
booked the cruise because we were convinced it would be a fun, safe bubble of
vaccinated people,” she said. “But who were we kidding? There’s no place to
escape omicron.”

©
2022 The New York Times Company

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