CDC changes course, green lights cruises for most vaccinated passengers

Feb 16, 2022

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday dropped its warning level for cruise ships down to a Level 3, indicating that the threat of COVID-19 is high, but stopping short of telling people not to sail.

The cruise industry’s new Level 3 warning advises passengers to make sure they are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines — including boosters — before traveling and to avoid cruise travel if they are at a higher risk of becoming ill due to other factors.

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On Dec. 30, 2021, the CDC raised cruising’s warning level to a Level 4, which, at the time, put the industry on par with nearly 90 countries worldwide that were also at a Level 4. Currently, there are 138 countries at Level 4 status, including the U.S.; there are 50 at Level 3, where cruises currently stand. The CDC lists only four countries at Level 2 and just seven at Level 1, the lowest risk level. (You can see a complete list of all countries with warnings on this CDC page.)

This map on the CDC’s website shows how many countries were at Levels 1-4 at the time of publication. (Screenshot courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

“The decision by the … CDC to lower the Travel Health Notice threat level for cruise ships is a step in the right direction and recognizes the leadership and effectiveness of the cruise sector’s health and safety protocols that are unmatched by virtually any other commercial setting,” said a statement from the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry organization that represents most major cruise lines.

The move goes hand in hand with a new vaccination designation system the CDC rolled out for cruise ships on Feb. 9, nearly a month after its voluntary Conditional Sailing Order expired. The new optional system for foreign-flagged cruise vessels operating in U.S. waters will mark ships in one of three categories, depending on the level of vaccinated passengers and crew on board:

  • Not Highly Vaccinated: ships with less than 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated.
  • Highly Vaccinated: ships with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated, but with less than 95% of passengers and 95% of crew who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines (i.e. received all booster shots).
  • Vaccination Standard of Excellence: ships with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.
CDC Vaccine card and masks
(Photo by Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Under current standards, most major cruise lines would fall into the “Highly Vaccinated” category. A few — including luxury lines Azamara Cruises and Silversea Cruises, which are now requiring boosters for passengers — would be classified as “Vaccination Standard of Excellence.” Royal Caribbean, which has been requiring only 90% of passengers to be vaccinated in order to account for the large number of young children it sees on its voyages, would fall under the “Not Highly Vaccinated” designation.

Cruise lines have until Feb. 18, 2022, to opt into the new system, which will also continue to monitor vessels via a color-coded system that indicates whether cases have been detected on board.

Because most cruise lines are adhering to high vaccination standards, some — including Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises — have begun rolling back mask requirements on their ships.

In addition to mask-wearing and mandatory vaccinations, lines have adopted precautions like pre-cruise testing, improved air filtration, sailing at reduced capacity, and increasing the staffing and equipment in onboard medical facilities.

Featured photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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