CDC to cruisers: Get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can

Apr 3, 2021

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday recommended that cruisers get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can. But the agency stopped short of making it a requirement for cruising out of U.S. ports.

As part of new guidelines announced Friday for cruise lines operating out of U.S. ports, the agency urged “all eligible port personnel and travelers (passengers and crew) get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available to them.”

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The CDC suggested that a vaccine requirement would be mandatory for crew on ships operating out of U.S. ports. As part of the guidelines, the agency instructed cruise lines to develop “a plan and timeline for vaccination of cruise ship crew prior to resuming passenger operations.”

The guidelines also called on cruise lines to present proposals for how they would incorporate vaccination strategies “to maximally protect passengers and crew from introduction, amplification, and spread of COVID-19 in the maritime environment and land-based communities.”

The guidelines said cruise lines should educate travelers on the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

The COVID-19 vaccine-related guidelines were part of a broader set of “technical instructions” that the CDC issued Friday for cruise lines on how to set up agreements with U.S. ports and local health authorities in advance of restarting operations out of U.S. ports.

Some cruise lines such as MSC Cruises have been testing passengers for COVID-19 as they arrive for sailings but are not requiring that passengers be vaccinated for COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

The CDC said such agreements must be in place before cruising can resume out of U.S. ports.

The CDC said the agreements should address how lines, ports and health authorities would handle an outbreak of COVID-19 on board a vessel, including a “worse case” scenario where multiple ships experience an outbreak at once.

The CDC listed a number of specific things that must be addressed in the agreements including “clear protocols that avoid medical evacuations at sea to the greatest extent possible for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related medical reasons.”

The CDC said cruise lines, ports and local health authorities must set up plans for unavoidable medical evacuations from ships that rely on commercial resources such as chartered standby vessels instead of government resources.

The plans should be “designed to minimize the burden to the greatest extent possible on federal, state, and local government resources, including U.S. Coast Guard resources,” the CDC said in the guidelines. “All medical evacuations at sea must be coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard.”

In a part of the instructions that could cause headaches for cruise operators, the CDC said cruise lines and ports should ensure that disembarking and embarking passengers from cruise ships do not occupy the same enclosed or semi-enclosed areas of a port within the same 12-hour period.

Such a rule could make it difficult for lines to “turn around” a cruise ship for a new departure within hours of ending a previous departure, as is the normal practice in the industry.

Under the new guidelines, a cruise ship that ends a voyage on a Saturday, for instance, might have to wait until the following day (Sunday) to start a new sailing. Such a delay could have a cascading effect on other departures scheduled in the same terminal over the coming days.

The guidelines also call on cruise lines to make contractual arrangements with medical facilities on land at the places their ships visit to accommodate passengers who might fall ill during voyages or need medical evaluation or testing.

In addition, the guidelines call on lines to make contractual arrangements with shoreside facilities in the places their ships visit for the isolation and quarantine of passengers suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, or their close contacts.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen cruise lines have announced plans to require passengers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine before sailing, as can be seen in TPG’s comprehensive guide to COVID-19 vaccine requirements at 37 major lines. At the same time, a few lines have said they would not require passengers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 — at least for now.

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Featured image of courtesy of MSC Cruises

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