Cruising is one of the safest things you can do in the age of COVID and you are making a mistake if you dismiss it as a reasonable vacation option due to pandemic fear, despite what the CDC may say.
On Dec. 30, 2021, the CDC raised its travel warning to Level 4, the highest level possible, due to recent infections on a number of sailings during the Omicron wave. The warning doesn’t prohibit cruising, but strongly advises against it. According to the CDC, the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters onboard ships. Cruisers that do go ahead and travel are encouraged to be fully vaccinated and boosted and to quarantine for five days after the cruise ends.
What else does the CDC think we should avoid? Apparently, nothing else should be avoided since the agency continues to apply its warnings and strict monitoring to only the cruising industry. The CDC has not announced warnings for air travel, concert attendance, holiday shopping, subway riding, etc. and it is encouraging public school attendance in person because “students benefit from in-person learning.”
Before its warning level change, the CDC announced it was monitoring 92 cruise ships. That monitoring was triggered when a ship experienced positive test results with 0.1% or more of its passengers within a seven-day period. In Georgia, where I live and the CDC is headquartered, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a 7-day positivity rate of 21.7% as of Dec. 29, 2021. If the CDC treated its own environment the way it treats cruise ships, why aren’t we hearing warnings to avoid entering the state or warnings encouraging those of us here to flee for our lives?
As of Dec. 30, 2021, Royal Caribbean says it has sailed over 1.1 million passengers with 1,745 positive cases, resulting in a 0.02% infection rate.Royal Caribbean International
Even without the CDC’s bewildering warning, recent news outlets would have us all believe the infection rates have been much higher and that cruise ships are petri dishes or COVID incubators. The same was said years ago when cruise ships suffered from rhinovirus outbreaks. Following those highly publicized stories, the cruise lines became hyper-focused on hygiene, sanitation, and controlling infectious disease. Since then, any regular cruiser has become fondly familiar with the words “washee washee,” meant to remind you to wash your hands before entering dining halls. And for years, the cruise lines promoted regular use of hand sanitizer with stations setup across ships, long before COVID made it a common practice elsewhere.
Nevertheless, COVID is presenting a new challenge to cruise lines as, once again, they seem to be called out as the only environment for contagion. However sensational the news stories may be, the data proves cruises do not present significant risk. As of 12/30/2021, according to Bermello Ajamil & Partners’ Cruise Recovery Dashboard, there have been 467 documented COVID cases aboard cruise ships since cruising restarted last summer. That is a small number compared to the more than 5.6 million people who sailed during that same time, for a 0.008% infection rate. You don’t hear that on the news, unfortunately.
The Bermello Ajamil & Partners data is not perfect or precise. It is based on news stories and not from the cruise lines, health departments or other sources. So let’s look at another measure – this one from Royal Caribbean International, which has provided data specific to it’s sailings. As of Dec. 30, 2021, Royal Caribbean says it has sailed over 1.1 million passengers with 1,745 positive cases, resulting in a 0.02% infection rate.
The pause in cruising that began in 2020 inspired the cruise industry to take aggressive action to make further improvements to sanitation, implement measures to promote social distancing, and take measures to limit exposure and manage infections once they develop. Examples include reduced-capacity sailing in which 60% or fewer births are booked, requiring vaccinations and testing before boarding, use of masks on some ships, limiting reservations and seating in dining halls, restaurants, and shows, conducting virtual muster drills, and enhancing the medical offices on board.
Think about it – in your day-to-day life, where do you go that requires you to prove you are vaccinated and requires a negative test before entry? You and thousands of others visit grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, gyms, movie theatres, sporting events, airports, and more every day, and none of those organizations employ the strict controls in place that cruises do. So why do we hear about infections on cruises? I think it’s because in all those other scenarios, people enter with infection, spread the infection, and leave within a short time. There is no way to contact trace when a stranger breathes too closely to you next to the dairy case at the grocery store and then you both walk away carrying the disease to your next stops or back home to your families. But, on a cruise, you are there for a few days or more, all together. If someone does get on board with the start of infection (that may still test negative) and it then spreads, they, and maybe you, could develop symptoms before the cruise is over. So, it’s not that cruising is less safe than all those other things we all do each day; you just don’t have the opportunity to leave the ship and never be seen or heard from again, like you do just about anywhere else. There is just greater monitoring and awareness of what is happening on a cruise ship and greater ability to isolate those who test positive, contact trace, and quarantine others who may have been exposed. In reality, cruising is being picked on because the cruise lines have the data whereas no other organization does. They are doing the right things that no other organization is doing.
What non-cruise environment may be the most similar? How about public schools where our children spend hours each day, five days a week, with the same people in “close quarters,” the situation concerning the CDC about cruises? Sure, the CDC thinks kids shouldn’t go to school either, right? Well, actually they think differently about that. And they have used data to justify their position that kids should be in school.
Just one year ago the CDC shared research on its website, which is still there, to support its recommendation for in-school attendance. Among that research was a finding that, of 17 rural Wisconsin schools, the rate of infection was 0.035%, which was lower than the county’s overall infection rate of 0.055%. Additionally, “…only 3.7% of the cases identified in those schools were linked to in-school spread. (I bolded the word only for emphasis). So, the CDC is okay with our children being in environments with as much as a 3.7% rate of infection, but the agency is not okay with fully-vaccinated and tested adults in a controlled cruising environment with much lower infection rates.
So why does the CDC take contrarian views on schools versus cruises? The only explanations are that they either don’t know what they’re doing or they are making policy recommendations based on political factors. I am not suggesting they are bad at their true jobs – studying disease. I am suggesting they are bad at the public policy part of their jobs, or at least they are doing poorly at it right now. They clearly have lost credibility with many of us when they make policy recommendations that do not seem to be based on data or are contradictory at best. The result is that we all must instead make the best decisions we can with the information we have since the CDC is not proving it has the integrity to be a good broker of information.
Think about it – in your day-to-day life, where do you go that requires you to prove you are vaccinated and requires a negative test before entry? You and thousands of others visit grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, movie theatres, sporting events, airports, and more every day, and none of those organizations employ the strict controls in place that cruises do.
For me and my family, we are going to keep cruising. Our next cruise is a river cruise in Europe in just a few weeks. And I’m eager to try and fit in a short Caribbean cruise before then. I realize I may be considered biased as a Travel Advisor, and during this pandemic, our travel agency has suffered lost business and lost opportunities, but most of those were self-inflicted. My customers have eagerly wanted to travel for the past two years. In some cases, borders closed and forced cancellations or reschedules. But, in most cases, I encouraged customers to cancel or postpone vacations because I didn’t want to help put anyone at significant risk. But, at this point, that caution no longer makes sense. The vaccines have been available for all, except small children. The cruise lines have implemented strong controls and management practices. In fact, because there are such great controls and monitoring, cruising is one of the safest things you can do right now, other than being locked down at home, and there is data to prove it.
On the weekend the Omicron news broke out of South Africa, I was on a plane and sitting across the aisle from a passenger who struggled to keep his mask on properly. At the end of the flight, he triumphantly declared he was finishing a very long trip home…from South Africa. Standing at the front of the plane waiting for the door to open, a flight attendant and I both stepped back and looked at each other with concern. That’s about all the protection the airlines were affording – wear a mask and good luck! Despite the breaking news, there was no testing required, no vaccination required, and certainly no CDC warning.
Quite simply, the CDC’s singular fixation on cruising is weird and shows how questionable its credibility is right now as a policymaking body. In all facets of our lives, we are free to be as responsible or irresponsible as we want with COVID. The CDC isn’t warning anyone to stop anything, except cruise. Ask yourself if that makes sense. Then decide what makes the most sense for you. You can listen to weird or you can choose to use real data and make an informed choice. For me it’s continue cruising because I know it is safe and I know the CDC is wrong to say otherwise.