As clusters of COVID-19 cases continue to emerge on cruise ships since the omicron variant emerged, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned travelers against taking cruises.
“Today, CDC increased the Cruise Travel Health Notice (THN) to a Level 4, recommending people avoid cruise travel regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC said in a statement provided by spokesperson Dave Daigle.
The agency noted the decision was made as COVID-19 cases are increasing on ships, in the U.S. and around the globe.
Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, cruise ships operating in U.S. waters reported 162 cases of COVID-19 to the CDC. Between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29, cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters reported 5,013 COVID-19 cases to the CDC.
That’s nearly 31 times the number of cases reported in the first two weeks of December, the CDC said.
In the U.S., the seven-day daily average of COVID-19 cases has been 240,000 per day. That’s an increase of about 60% over the previous week, according to the CDC.
As of Wednesday, the CDC was investigating or monitoring more than 90 ships for COVID-19 on board. The CDC said on its website Thursday that the decision to raise the warning level against cruising reflects the rise in cases since the identification of the omicron variant of COVID.
Daigle told USA TODAY Tuesday that the health agency acknowledges it is “not possible” for cruising to be a zero-risk activity amid the pandemic. A person’s chance at contracting coronavirus is higher on cruise ships because the virus spreads more easily between people spending time in close quarters on the vessels.
Previously, the CDC had in place a “level 3: High Level of COVID-19” warning, that was put into place in August.
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Cruise Lines International Association, the leading industry organization said it was “disappointed” with the CDC’s decision to warn against the form of travel.
“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 – far fewer than on land – and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” CLIA said in a statement shared by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications and public affairs for CLIA.
The organization continued that “no setting can be immune from this virus” and added that cruise lines are providing highly controlled environments with protocol in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus including testing and vaccination levels.
“While we are disappointed and disagree with the decision to single out the cruise industry – an industry that continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors – CLIA and our ocean-going cruise line members remain committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety,” CLIA said.
If travelers choose to embark on a cruise, the CDC said to make sure to be fully vaccinated and to get a COVID-19 booster shot if eligible before boarding.
Will the cruise industry shut down again?
COVID-19 cases reported on cruise ships have been stacking up. As the numbers climb, will cruise lines halt operations as they did in March 2020, leaving the industry shuttered for more than a year?
Though the answer remains unclear, it doesn’t seem likely.
Lines have yet to cancel any sailings, though some companies adjusted protocols onboard ships. The world is not in the same place with COVID-19 as in 2020. Vaccines are widely available, and enhanced protocols on ships mitigate the spread of communicable diseases.
While it has raised its warning level, the CDC has not moved to shut down the cruise industry. The agency’s Conditional Sailing Order remains in place until mid-January before it becomes voluntary for cruise lines.
“CDC is working with cruise ships to keep passengers and crew safe through COVID-19 mitigation measures,” Daigle said Thursday. “The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”
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