Last month, a 77-year-old woman made a fateful decision – she boarded a Carnival cruise in Galveston, Texas, in sunny Belize.
The cruise required vaccination, and around 96% of the 4,336 passengers and crew were said to have been vaccinated, but no one was required to present a negative Covid test before boarding. After four days on the water, the ship reported a 27-person Covid outbreak covering both passengers and crew. One of the passengers, the 77-year-old man, died 10 days later – the first reported death since cruises in the United States were restarted in June.
The tragic incident begs the question: is cruise travel safe at this time?
As you might expect, Carnival says yes. In recent weeks, the company has imposed negative pre-boarding Covid tests for all passengers and issued a statement to the Washington Post saying the deceased woman “almost certainly did not contract COVID on our ship.” Notably, when she boarded the ship on July 31, the testing procedures were not in place.
Medical experts are not convinced. Travel of all kinds is currently a very high-risk activity, says Dr. Luis Ostrosky, division chief of infectious diseases at UT Health, which is part of the University of Texas at Houston. The cases are “completely out of control,” he says. “And we don’t have the level of immunization we need to ensure that people will survive if they [Covid]. “
And even with security measures in place, cruises carry residual risks that cannot be ignored, like inevitable close quarters and the potential for groundbreaking infections.
Here’s why these risks are particularly dangerous, especially compared to other forms of travel – and what can be done to make cruises safer:
Cruises are “a recipe for transmission”
Even on a good day outside of the pandemic, cruises are tough environments from an infection control standpoint, Ostrosky says.
On a cruise, you often spend time in shared common areas. You eat and drink indoors at buffet restaurants with large communal tables, watch shows in theaters, and touch all kinds of surfaces, from railings to casino games. If an outbreak occurs at sea, you are limited to the boat, which can make the outbreak more difficult to contain and treat.
“It’s just a recipe for transmission,” says Ostrosky. This is why it is common to see outbreaks of other contagious respiratory or gastrointestinal viruses, such as norovirus, on board cruises.
Cruises are even particularly risky compared to other types of travel, such as driving or flying, as they present more opportunities for prolonged exposure. “Frankly, the risk on a two hour flight where everyone is masked and the air circulation is good is [lower] than being on a cruise ship for five days straight, ”says Dr. Preeti Malani, health officer at the University of Michigan.
Vaccine requirements help, but are not foolproof
Several cruise lines, including Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, are cracking down on vaccine requirements. It’s a good start, experts say, but not enough.
Although being fully vaccinated significantly reduces your risk of hospitalization or death from Covid, Ostrosky notes, the increased transmissibility of the delta variant means that vaccination “no longer guarantees that you will not get the infection or be able to get it. to transmit”. This means that any vaccine mandate must be combined with other safety measures, such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
“We can try to make cruises as safe as possible, but we’re going to have some decisive cases,” Ostrosky said.
Another factor to keep in mind: the level of community spread to where you live – or, in this case, where a cruise departs – greatly affects your level of risk. “When the spread is big in the community, like it’s happening in Florida right now, everything becomes risky,” says Malani. “The idea of going on a cruise is all the more risky.”
Some cruise lines are also waging another battle – against state governments that have passed laws or decrees aimed at ending vaccination mandates. Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed an executive order on Wednesday banning any state or local mandate requiring vaccination against Covid. In Florida, home to several popular cruise departure ports, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order in May banning vaccine passports statewide.
Norwegian Cruise Line sued Florida’s top health official in July, seeking a preliminary injunction to allow the company to implement its vaccine mandate for all passengers and crew. The company won the case earlier this month, with U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams writing that Norwegian “has shown that public health would be compromised if it were forced to suspend its vaccination requirements.”
Relying on a negative Covid test is also a flawed strategy
If you don’t quarantine yourself for two weeks before your Covid test before boarding, the test is “fundamentally irrelevant,” Ostrosky says.
To make cruises truly safe, he says, companies should require mandatory two-week quarantines for each passenger and crew member, negative Covid tests 24 to 48 hours before boarding and another negative Covid test immediately afterward. boarding. It is an expensive and difficult process to organize and implement, especially in the middle of a passenger’s vacation.
If you must navigate, here’s how to be safer
It may take some time before it is really safe to board a cruise. Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, recently said he believed the country would have control of Covid and regain a sense of normalcy by spring 2022. But even then, travel and cruises are likely to be high risk activities.
“We look forward to a future where more people get vaccinated and the numbers are lower, maybe we will have passed the delta variant,” Ostrosky said. “It will be a much safer time to travel.”
If your heart is ready to go on a cruise before then, you should get the vaccine when you’re eligible, says Malani. Next, look for cruises that require proof of vaccination and only allow reduced capacity – the lower the better. While cruising, choose low-risk activities and excursions, she says, like always eating out. And of course, board the ship knowing that no matter what, you are taking a risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assigns cruise ships a color-coded safety status – green, yellow, orange and red – based on reports of cases of Covid or Covid-type illness. The agency also indicates when there are investigations of epidemics on ships. You can check the CDC website to find out a vessel’s Covid status before planning or embarking on a cruise.
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