A surge in Covid infections on cruise ships is causing mayhem across the industry, leaving passengers stranded aboard ships, exacerbating staff shortages and prompting the CDC to warn US passengers against all cruise travel.
The CDC director said this week that Covid cases have increased 30-fold in just two weeks. Every one of the nearly 100 cruise ships currently carrying passengers in US waters has reported enough Covid-19 cases to merit investigation by the CDC, according to the agency’s website.
Over the holidays, passengers found themselves floating around on ships that couldn’t dock because foreign ports were turning them away or facing long, onboard quarantines before being allowed to come home, after testing positive for Covid. Dozens of cruises have been cancelled and some ports in the Caribbean and South America are turning ships away from making daily visits.
“It wasn’t the cruise we signed up for,” said Janet Silver Ghent, a Palo Alto retiree and editor who was stuck onboard a South America cruise for eight days, when ports in Chile and Argentina refused to let passengers disembark because of Covid cases.
On December 30, the CDC issued its highest travel warning, advising the public to avoid cruise ship travel even if vaccinated. The agency said, at the time, that the number of infections reported on cruise ships had jumped to 5,013 between 15-29 December – up from only 162 in the first two weeks of December.
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky, speaking at a senate health hearing on Tuesday, said that the numbers have continued to skyrocket, though the agency did not respond to requests for updated case counts.
“Just over the last two weeks with Omicron, we’ve seen a 30 fold increase in cases on ships,” Walensky said.
The problems come just six months after the cruise industry’s big comeback, when companies resumed full operations after having voyages shut down for more than a year by the pandemic. Fortunately, unlike the outbreaks that rattled the global cruise industry early in the pandemic, there have been no initial reports of serious illness or death in the latest surge. Most cruise companies are requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated and tested before setting sail, likely helping to limit the severity of outbreaks.
“Our case count has spiked, but the level of severity is significantly milder,” said Royal Caribbean Group’s chief medical officer Dr Calvin Johnson, in a statement last month.
The company reported that, since cruising restarted in the US in June 2021, only 1,745 of its 1.1 million guests have tested positive – a positivity rate of 0.162%. Of those, it said, only 41 people needed hospitalization.
But the case surge is nonetheless causing headaches for cruise operators and passengers. Florida maritime attorney James Walker said that thousands of cruise ship crew members have tested positive and that many are quarantining on a handful of out-of-service ships.
“Given the number of crew members who are ill, there are significant staffing problems,” said Walker, who believes cruise lines should suspend their operations until after the Omicron surge. “For the people who pay to go on a cruise, the service isn’t there.”
‘We were willing to embrace the risks’
By the time the CDC issued its warning against cruise ship travel on 30 December, many holiday passengers were already aboard and seeing their dream cruises disrupted by Omicron. Some have opted to try and make the best of it.
Five days after Utah resident Brett Williams and his wife set sail on what was supposed be an 11-day Caribbean cruise, he said 48 crew members and 51 passengers of the small 342-passenger sailing ship, the MSY Wind Surf, tested positive and had to be taken off the ship for quarantine in Barbados. Within a few days, he and his wife and many other passengers also tested positive and were told they couldn’t fly home until they each received a negative test result.
Despite experiencing no symptoms, Brett Williams’ tests remained stubbornly positive. The psychologist and author made the best of what turned out to be 12 extra days stuck on the ship, eating complimentary deluxe room service meals, taking pictures of beautiful sunsets and working on his new book, a self help guide, ironically titled Unstuck.
At one point, when all the other passengers had been sent home, he and his wife even got to enjoy the ship’s spa pool by themselves, where he joked he wanted to order up “a quarantini”.
“Life has risks,” said Williams, who described the trip as “awesome” despite the disruptions. “We were willing to embrace the risks.”
Ghent and her husband, Allen Podell, also managed to enjoy their South America trip even though their ship, the Viking Jupiter, spent so much time at sea, since they couldn’t dock, that the entertainers aboard used up all their routines in the first few days and had to resort to improvising entirely new material.
Ghent said Viking’s testing routines were extremely strict, requiring all passengers to take a spit PCR test every day. “I spit so much, I never want to spit again,” she said.
Passengers who were deemed to be exposed were taken off the ship for quarantine. These included actor Liev Schreiber, who proceeded to post viral videos from his quarantine hotel in Chile, tapping out beats on a Casio synthesiser and calling himself DJ Covid.
Ghent’s husband, Podell,83, ate voluminous amounts of sushi and spent his time singing along with the guitarist in the Viking ship’s Explorer Lounge. While the boat was never able to dock in its final destination port, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Podell enjoyed belting out renditions of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads and made up his own version of an Evita song: Don’t Make Me Cry, Argentina.
Ghent and Podell eventually got off the ship in Uruguay, where they were supposed to spend one day but ended up spending five. The cruise line chartered a plane to get passengers back to Miami. From there, the couple missed their connecting flight to San Francisco and temporarily lost their baggage, but managed to keep their sense of humor all the same.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us for cruising the Atlantic,” said Podell.
Officials in the cruise industry, which has lost a lot of money since the start of the pandemic, were also trying to take the setbacks in stride.
“Omicron is having a big short-term impact on everyone,” said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean in a statement, but argued that cruises are one of the safer places for people to vacation because everyone aboard is vaccinated. “Many observers see this as a major step towards Covid-19 becoming endemic rather than an epidemic.”