Why 17 cases of COVID-19 on a cruise ship shouldn’t be a huge cause for concern — really

Dec 6, 2021

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The headlines on Sunday about a Norwegian Cruise Line ship sailing in the Gulf of Mexico were alarming.

There was an “outbreak” of COVID-19 taking place on the brand’s giant Norwegian Breakaway, as many news outlets put it, and the vessel was just hours away from docking in New Orleans.

To a casual observer, it may have seemed like we were right back to early 2020 when the just-emerging coronavirus was running rampant around cruise ships, prompting panic in port towns, quarantines on ships and the sight of ambulances meeting vessels as they docked.

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But this isn’t early 2020.

As I’ve experienced first-hand in recent months on nearly a dozen cruises while documenting the restart of cruising, a lot has changed in the way cruise ships operate in this new era of COVID-19. And the details released about the positive test results for COVID-19 on the New Orleans-based Norwegian Breakaway aren’t nearly the cause for concern that some people might think — and that some of the headlines may have implied.

Surely, the word “outbreak” isn’t quite the right word to describe what happened on Norwegian Breakaway on its latest seven-night cruise to the Western Caribbean, which ended Sunday.

Just 17 passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19 on the ship. That’s not a wildly high number of passengers and crew. And there is no evidence (at least for now) that the illness spread through the ship in a major or unusual way.

It may be that the expected spread of the new omicron variant of COVID-19 around the globe in the coming months results in more cases of the illness popping up on ships. But so far, there’s no hard evidence that we’re seeing that.

Related: Why I feel safer now on a cruise ship than in my home town

As of now, there is just one suspected case of the new omicron variant of COVID-19 on Norwegian Breakaway — a crew member from South Africa who had been in isolation for the entire voyage in question (and thus, in theory, not interacting with anyone else on board).

Here’s why I’m not all that worried about the positive cases of COVID-19 reported on Norwegian Breakaway — and I don’t think you should be, either.

The number of cases is relatively low

After the testing of every single passenger and crew member on the vessel over the weekend, just 17 were found to be positive for COVID-19, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

That’s a relatively high number of positive cases compared to what we’ve been seeing on some other ships that have reported positive cases since cruising began resuming in North America earlier this year. But it’s not inconsistent with the broader trend of relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases on cruise vessels.

Cruise lines that operate big ships have been reporting an average of one or two passengers testing positive for the illness on sailings. But that’s an average that is bundling in some sailings with no positive cases and some with quite a few more. On the high end, a handful of vessels have recorded a dozen positive cases or more during a single sailing.

A Carnival Cruise Line ship in recent months recorded 27 cases of passengers and crew testing positive for COVID-19 on a single sailing, out of around 900 that were tested.

In that context, a report of 17 people testing positive for COVID-19 on a cruise ship seems more dog-bites-man than man-bites-dog — it isn’t all that much of an outlier.

Related: Do the new COVID-19 testing rules apply to cruisers?

One thing to keep in mind is that Norwegian Breakaway is a very large ship with a very high number of passengers and crew on board — even as it operates in this post-COVID-19 world at only partial capacity. On the sailing that ended on Sunday, there were around 3,200 people in all on the vessel.

So, yes, 17 passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19. But that’s 17 out of 3,200. In other words, only about half a percent of people on the ship (about 1 in 200) tested positive.

There are strict vaccine and test mandates

As we’ve written about quite a bit here at TPG, cruise lines have been far stricter about COVID-19 vaccine requirements and testing than any other segment of the travel industry.

Many lines, including Norwegian, now require every single passenger and crew member on board to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Cruise lines also are requiring passengers to test negative for COVID-19 just before boarding a ship.

Some lines even are requiring passengers to undergo multiple COVID-19 tests before boarding ships or while on board. One line, Viking, tests every passenger on every voyage every single day.

Passengers who test positive for COVID-19 before boarding are turned away from the ship, and those who test positive on board are quickly isolated. The result has been a transformation of cruise ships into places where vacationers are very unlikely to come in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive.

The vaccine requirements have further transformed cruise ships into places where the illness is much less likely to spread than it was in early 2020 when a positive case or two does pop up. Even when there is a person-to-person spread of COVID-19 on a ship, the additional cases are less likely to be serious than was the case in early 2020.

Notably, the passengers and crew who tested positive for COVID-19 on Norwegian Breakaway over the weekend were asymptomatic, according to a statement from the line sent to TPG on Monday. That is, they were positive for COVID-19, yes. But they did not feel sick.

Cruise lines are well-equipped to handle illness on ships

As mentioned above, cruise lines now are quickly isolating passengers who test positive for COVID-19, and they’ve implemented a number of other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on vessels.

The new measures include rigorous contact tracing in cases where a passenger tests positive for COVID-19, with close contacts being initially isolated and then tested for COVID-19. Some lines are having passengers wear bracelets that record close contact with other passengers, allowing for quick and, in theory, accurate contact tracing.

Lines also have expanded the medical centers on ships and added more on-call doctors and nurses should symptomatic cases of COVID-19 arise. In addition, they’ve developed detailed plans for quickly removing COVID-19-positive passengers from ships in a safe way and getting them to a location for isolation on land — often back at their own homes.

Cruise lines also have shown they can move fast to tighten protocols even further if necessary. In its statement to TPG, Norwegian said it would require all passengers on this week’s sailing of Norwegian Breakaway to wear masks while indoors except while actively eating or drinking. It also will perform additional COVID-19 tests on passengers twice during the sailing.

Related: New COVID-19 protocols on ships could be here to stay

Bottom line

Cruise ships aren’t completely COVID-19-free. But, for the most part, the number of passengers and crew testing positive for COVID-19 on cruise ships since cruising has resumed has been relatively low.

The report of 17 people testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend on a single Norwegian vessel is a bit of an outlier as compared to what we’ve seen in recent months with other ships where positive cases have arisen. But it’s not all that out of the ordinary.

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Featured image by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Norwegian Cruise Line.

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