How to check if your cruise ship is being monitored by the CDC

December 29, 2021
The MS Hamburg is seen docked in Buenos Aires on Nov. 29, 2021. Argentina ordered all passengers on board to isolate following the detection of a COVID case, according to the Ministry of Health.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring or investigating 92 ships for COVID, a factor that could add to travelers’ worries as they consider whether or not to embark on an upcoming cruise.

But the fact that the CDC is monitoring or investigating a ship does not mean there is a widespread COVID outbreak on board. Even with stringent vaccination, testing and masking, among other protocols, it is fairly common for cases of COVID to emerge among passengers and crew on cruise vessels. 

While it’s not known whether COVID will shut down the cruise industry as it did in March 2020, it doesn’t seem likely – even with ships under investigation for COVID. 

It doesn’t come as a surprise that coronavirus continues to find its way onto cruise ships – the CDC anticipated cases on board ships since before the omicron variant emerged, in part because of the very nature of cruising.

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David Daigle, a spokesperson for the CDC, 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 COVID-19 is higher on cruise ships because the virus spreads more easily between people spending time in close quarters on the vessels.

“(The) CDC has been managing COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships since this summer when cruise ships started sailing with passengers,” Daigle continued, noting that the agency is working with ships to keep passengers and crew safe on board with mitigation measures in place. 

Nevertheless, the CDC recommends people avoid cruise travel if they are not fully vaccinated and advises that people get a booster shot if eligible, before traveling on a cruise ship. The agency also recommends people avoid cruise travel if they’re at increased risk of severe illness regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated, Daigle said.

Understanding that the CDC has been dealing with cases since cruises resumed over the summer, what does it mean when it marks a cruise ship as under investigation or as being monitored on its running list? 

What it means for a ship to be monitored or under ‘investigation’ by CDC

Just one case of COVID or COVID-like symptoms could prompt the CDC to monitor or investigate a ship, which is why it’s important to understand how the CDC determines ship status and where to find the latest ship-specific information. 

The CDC’s “Cruise Ship Color Status” chart is kept available to the public on its website and is updated regularly. Ships are broken into five color-coded classifications: Green, Orange, Yellow, Red and Gray.

“Ship color status is determined using surveillance data from the previous 7 days – regardless of voyage dates – and CDC investigation findings,” the CDC says on its website.

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Green status means there have been no reported cases of COVID or COVID-like illnesses on board. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 19 ships with green status, and some of those ships are on crew-only voyages.

Orange status means the ship has reported cases among passengers and is being monitored but levels don’t meet the threshold for CDC investigation. There were only four ships with orange status as of Tuesday afternoon.

On restricted voyages, or cruises carrying paying passengers, just one case among crew merits a yellow status, prompting a CDC investigation.

Yellow means reported cases meet the CDC’s threshold for investigation. The vast majority of ships are currently categorized as yellow.

The threshold is higher for passengers on restricted voyages; the number of passengers with COVID or COVID-like illnesses over the preceding seven days must equal or surpass 0.10% of the total number of passengers on board to merit investigation. So if a ship has 5,000 passengers, it would need at least five cases over seven days to be classified as yellow.

That percentage includes cases occurring within passengers in the five-day period after disembarkation that the health agency is notified about by state or local health departments, the CDC said.

Red status means there is “sustained transmission” of COVID or COVID-like illnesses on board or there is a potential for cases to “overwhelm” the ship’s medical center. There were no ships with red status Wednesday.

Gray status means the ship’s health and safety protocols have not been reviewed or confirmed by the CDC. There were no ships marked as gray Wednesday.

Every major cruise line has detailed procedures for handling COVID cases on board and protecting fellow passengers and crew.

Story continues below. 

Ship statuses are posted with ‘lag’ to CDC site

While the CDC’s chart is a useful resource while observing the cruise industry and COVID and for travelers to decide whether to go on their cruise or to cancel, there is a caveat – the site is not perfectly aligned to what is happening on a ship at any given time.

“It is important to know that there is at least a two-day lag in the posting of an updated color status,” the CDC’s Daigle told USA TODAY.

Daigle laid out the progression of how cruise ship color codes are updated by the CDC. It’s a three-day process.

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On day one, cases are detected or identified on the ship. On day two, cases are reported to the CDC, data is pulled from REDCap and the color status is assessed by the agency. On day three, the color status is updated on the agency’s public website. 

And the lag may be more than two days at times. Posting doesn’t happen on weekends or during federal holidays. As a result, “there may be a longer lag between case detection and posting,” Daigle said.


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