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What happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19 on your cruise

July 18, 2021
8 min read
Coronavirus test
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Cruise fans have waited with bated breath as operations slowly resumed in North America over the past 45 days or so. I was on the very first voyage to allow U.S. passengers in more than a year, and two vaccinated cruisers tested positive near the end of the sailing. What unfolded in the half-day that followed was an exercise in trust between everyone onboard and the cruise line, which was charged with keeping us safe.

Here, we'll take a look at some ships that have had cases recently, how those cases were handled, what it meant for other cruisers onboard and some reasons why you shouldn't worry too much if it happens on your voyage.

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COVID-19 cases on cruise ships

(Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

The below isn't a comprehensive list of all cases, but hopefully it demonstrates the low numbers we've been seeing, especially accounting for the fact that, collectively, the total number of people (crew and passengers) onboard voyages that have happened in the past month and a half was in the tens of thousands.

Business as usual

Although these sailings had cases, the voyages were able to continue as scheduled with no limitations to port calls or onboard activities for those who weren't ill.

  • Celebrity Millennium cases: 2 fully vaccinated adult travel companions
  • Adventure of the Seas cases: 2 unvaccinated teenagers traveling in the same group
  • Freedom of the Seas cases: 1 unvaccinated adult

Altered or canceled itinerary

Because cruising in the age of COVID is still new to everyone, the situation can vary by cruise line, ship or itinerary. Decisions are made based on protocols each line has in place, how large the vessel is (larger ships have more robust medical capabilities), local regulations and agreements made between cruise lines and the ports they visit.

These two sailings both ended early because a small number of passengers tested positive. The former ended because the small-ship line had an agreement with Alaska to return to the ship's port of embarkation to disembark the sick passengers.

The latter was cut short after a miscommunication between government entities left passengers -- even ones who tested negative -- unable to go ashore in two small ports on the itinerary.

  • American Cruise Lines' American Constellation cases: 2 fully vaccinated adults, 1 crew member (vaccination status unknown)
  • Viking Sky cases: 1 fully vaccinated adult

COVID-19 protocol if someone tests positive

Speaking from firsthand experience, I can tell you that cruise lines are ready to spring into action if someone exhibits symptoms or tests positive while sailing. In either of those cases, you can rest assured that the following will occur.

Isolating: The ill passengers will likely be tested again to rule out the possibility of a false positive. If the result is the same after more than one test, the affected cruisers will be moved to designated isolation cabins, usually near the onboard medical center. They will remain there for the duration of the voyage or until they can be safely disembarked for medical treatment or repatriation.

(Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Contact Tracing: The ship will employ various methods of contact tracing, ranging from shore excursion lists and wearable trackers to facial recognition that taps into onboard surveillance camera footage.

Quarantining: After close contacts have been determined, they will be quarantined, with ship officials directing them to remain in their staterooms until a member of the medical staff can test them.

(Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Testing: Testing of all close contacts will be implemented by the ship's medical staff while those passengers are quarantined in their cabins. Results can take several hours to be processed, and cruisers who have potentially been exposed to the ill travelers will be required to stay in their staterooms until those results come back. Anyone testing negative will then be permitted to leave their room; anyone testing positive will start the whole process over again.

Why you shouldn't worry

Most ships aren't sailing fully vaccinated, but they are sailing with a high percentage of immunized travelers. Although most cruisers will have been fully inoculated by the time they embark, we know that it's still possible for a case or two of COVID-19 to sneak its way onto vessels here and there. But, that's not a reason to lose your cool; here's why.

Enhanced medical capabilities: There are now extra doctors and an entire team of nurses on most large ships, along with onboard testing capabilities. Ships also have the ability to contact trace, isolate/quarantine and test anyone exposed if a case is found on your ship.

(Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Backup plans for the backup plans: Cruise lines have spent more than a year learning about COVID-19, how it spreads and how to keep it from doing so on their vessels. They have invested significant time and money to train officers, crew and medical staff in everything from frequent, extra-powerful cleaning procedures and testing/quarantining/isolation protocols to evacuation in the improbable event that there is a larger outbreak. They also have agreements with local authorities in each port of call to account for what happens if passengers need shoreside medical treatment, as well as contingencies in case those plans change.

Cruise lines' massive debt: Cruise lines were totally unable to sail with paying passengers in key North American markets for more than a year. Even now, only a handful of lines are sailing with just a fraction of their vessels. To stay in business, the lines' parent companies have put themselves tens of billions of dollars in debt to survive. Paying back those funds requires the restart to be successful, and even one sizeable outbreak could set the industry back months. Therefore, apart from general decency and customer service, they have a vested interest in keeping COVID-19 at bay for financial reasons.

(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

CDC guidelines ... for now: A recent judgement from a U.S. appellate court ensures that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's cruise restart safety guidelines remain in place for now. Among the requirements is a mandate that ships commit to sailing with at least 95% of the onboard population (crew and passengers) fully vaccinated. Any vessels wishing to allow for a higher percentage of unvaccinated passengers (such as Royal Caribbean's ships, which carry a large number of young children who can't get the shots) must undergo CDC-supervised test cruises first.

Unvaccinated Europe sailings: Vessels from several lines -- including MSC, Costa and AIDA -- resumed voyages last summer with great success, outside of the CDC's jurisdiction and long before vaccines were approved and made available to the public. This proves safe sailing is possible long term. Now that vaccines are playing into the equation, they provide an even more impenetrable layer of protection, in addition to the safety measures lines have already been taking for months.

Bottom line

If a couple of positive cases pop up on your cruise, don't panic. Your ship has a regimented set of protocols in place, which it will deploy with the goal of stopping the virus in its tracks and keeping it from spreading.

This is cruising in 2021, not 2020, and the chances of one or two cases turning into another Diamond Princess situation are slim to none because cruise lines are prepared, and most passengers are vaccinated. It's also unlikely that your itinerary will be adversely affected, but if it is, the crew will do all they can to keep you and your fellow passengers calm and comfortable.

Travel -- particularly right now -- is a highly personal, subjective decision. You need to be flexible and realize that protocols and itineraries can change rapidly, sometimes daily, for a number of reasons. If you're not ready to cruise right now, there's nothing wrong with waiting until you're comfortable. Just know that, when you decide to step back onboard, the cruise lines will do all they can to keep you safe.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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