This week, news came out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was sunsetting its Program for Cruise Ships Operating in U.S. Waters effective immediately, opting for a new set of guidelines for public health operations on cruise ships.
The CDC made the announcement on Monday, writing on its website that, “as of July 18, 2022, CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships is no longer in effect” and it will no longer update pages that tracked cases onboard ships. Some cruise lines, like Virgin Voyages, moved to drop some COVID-era restrictions after the news came down this week.
On Thursday, the CDC posted a new set of guidelines, which are not mandatory for cruise lines operating U.S.-based sailings. The CDC said the guidelines were published “to assist cruise ship operators in establishing health and safety protections to reduce the risk of introduction and spread COVID-19 during passenger operations and preserve onboard medical capacity.”
“Cruise ship operators should carefully consider and incorporate these recommendations in developing their own health and safety protocols. Plans should include triggers for a graduated approach to outbreak management in response to increasing case counts or other public health concerns,” it added.
Here is just some of what the CDC is now recommending cruise operators do (the full set of recommendations can be found here):
Pre-Cruise Health Screenings
“Cruise ship operators should screen passengers for signs or symptoms of COVID-19, known close contact exposure to a person with COVID-19 within the 10 days before embarkation, or a positive COVID-19 viral test within 10 days before embarkation,” the CDC wrote in its new update.
Lines should consider denying boarding to those who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 before boarding (unless they are testing negative), and those who have had close exposure within 5 days of embarkation should only be allowed onboard if they are up to date with their vaccines, asymptomatic, and have a negative viral test taken the day of embarkation.
The CDC is no longer requiring cruise ships to operate vaccination-only voyages. However, its new update is still recommending that “all eligible travelers be up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.
“In addition to the protection COVID-19 vaccines provide to individual travelers in preventing severe illness or death from COVID-19, having a high proportion of travelers on board who are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines reduces the likelihood that cruise ships’ medical centers are overwhelmed by cases of COVID-19,” the CDC wrote in its new update.
Cruise lines no longer have to require guests to test before embarkation, but the CDC is still recommending it, too.
“To reduce likelihood of onboard transmission, cruise ship operators should consider requiring travelers to get tested for current infection with a viral test as close to the time of departure as possible (no more than 3 days before travel) and present their negative test result prior to boarding,” the CDC’s new update says.
“Testing within 1 day of embarkation is highly recommended. Cruise ship operators may also consider conducting embarkation testing for all or a subset of passengers.
The CDC also wants operators to have the capacity to do tests onboard, including PCR, NAAT, and rapid tests.
Onboard Response Plans
The CDC is still recommending that cruise line operators have a plan in place for a COVID-19 outbreak during a sailing, including isolation, quarantine protocols, and a medical facility onboard to be able to treat those who are infected and ill. That includes some kind of “surveillance protocols” to detect COVID-19 in passengers, isolation and quarantine protocols, medical facilities onboard, and the ability to “provide hospital level of care...for infected patients without the immediate need to rely on shoreside hospitalization.”
If an infection does happen, fully vaccinated close contacts should either be tested with a viral test daily until 5 days after exposure or quarantined until at least five full days after their last exposure. Those who aren’t up to date with their vaccines should either be quarantined for five days with daily testing and then wear a well-fitting mask when outside their cabin, or quarantined until at least 10 days after exposure.
Cruise lines should also have procedures in place for disembarking travelers with COVID-19 “who need a higher level of care that can be provided onboard” and “training protocols for all crew on COVID-19 prevention, mitigation, and response activities.”