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What Cruise Ships Tell Us about the Importance of Covid-19 Testing

June 17, 2021

It’s been over 15 months now since life in the United States ground to an abrupt halt due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and it’s been that long since the cruise industry has gone commercially quiet. 

COVID-19 rapidly became the cruise industry’s worst nightmare: The Diamond Princess and Grand Princess had more than 800 total COVID-19 cases, including 10 deaths. At the time, these numbers represented 17% of the total known cases in the United States. The indelible memory of cruise ships as floating quarantines will forever mark the early days of the pandemic. 

Now, more than a year after the first quarantines, cruise ships have once again started sailing out of North America. While this is a welcome relief for vacationers eager to get out into the world after months of lockdown, two recent cruise-related COVID-19 incidents highlight both the risks that still exist and the important role testing plays in mitigating those risks:

Passenger Breakthrough Cases Caught Early

In early June, passengers booked on the Royal Caribbean Group’s Celebrity Millennium cruise ship provided the cruise line with negative COVID-19 tests and proof of vaccination 72 hours before departing St. Maarten for a week-long trip with additional stops in Aruba, Barbados, and Curacao. At the end of the trip, on June 10, two passengers tested positive for COVID-19. They both felt fine, and they’d done what they were supposed to do, so what happened? 

While we may not know precisely when they picked up their breakthrough infections -- they could have been exposed before departure or anywhere during the course of the cruise -- the important take-away here is that there are no surefire guarantees. The fight against COVID-19 has been a numbers game from the start, and minimizing risk is not the same thing as eliminating it entirely. 

Bearing that in mind, Royal Caribbean’s strategy here is a sound one: namely, they established a baseline vaccination requirement, then supplemented that with two distinct “testing gates,” one at the beginning of the trip, and one at the end. By doing so, they were able to catch these asymptomatic cases early and take steps to protect both passengers and crew.

Routine Testing Averts Risk

On June 15, Royal Caribbean announced a delay in the inaugural voyage of its Odyssey of the Seas cruise ship. Originally slated to depart on July 3, the voyage has now been delayed until July 31 after eight crew members tested positive for COVID-19. Unlike the passengers in the previous example, these crew members had only been vaccinated on June 4, and therefore did not qualify as fully vaccinated. Their cases shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as “breakthrough” despite their having some degree of protection. Within this group, six of the eight cases were asymptomatic, while the remaining two had mild symptoms. 

This incident highlights the importance of routine testing in addition to testing gates. By mandating vaccinations for the crew, then continuing regular mandatory testing throughout that process, Royal Caribbean was able to catch a minor outbreak early enough to make its impact negligible in both health and operational business terms. However disappointing it is to delay the Odyssey of the Seas’ launch, catching things early allows for the kind of flexible response that simply wouldn’t be possible in a world where these crew member cases were caught only 3 days prior to departure.

With New York and California having lifted the bulk of their pandemic restrictions, most of the U.S. is squarely on the path back to “normal.” As we keep making progress there -- with more shots in arms, more businesses reopening for in-person work, more family vacations, and everything else -- we must not lose sight of the fact that more testing, strategically deployed, is what will ensure our long-term success. 

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