Covid epidemic aboard cruise ship highlights difficulty in keeping virus at bay


A coronavirus outbreak aboard a cruise ship that docked in New Orleans over the weekend has called into question the safety and health measures implemented by cruise passengers to revive the industry after a pandemic shutdown one year.

At least 17 passengers and crew have been confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Among them is a South African crew member, who remained in isolation for the duration of the trip and is suspected of having contracted the omicron variant, Norwegian officials said.

The epidemic demonstrates the difficulty of keeping the virus away from cruise ships despite the implementation of strict public health protocols.

Either way, outbreaks are going to occur in crowded spaces on a cruise ship, but testing travelers and staff minutes before departure and during any trip longer than three to five days would lessen transmission, a said Michael Saag, professor of medicine and infectious diseases. at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

While saying epidemics are never good, he cautioned that there shouldn’t be an overreaction.

“Unless there are no more epidemics, I don’t think we should create a policy to shut down the whole industry,” he said.

With their narrow confines and greater proportion of older, more vulnerable passengers, cruise ships were the sites of some of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks outside of China.

The cruises were closed under a “no-navigation order” issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2020.

Sailing resumed over the summer with most major cruise lines requiring proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test for all passengers and crew.

But despite the best efforts of cruise ship operators to provide a healthier and safer environment for crews and passengers, including the operation of ships with a high percentage of people vaccinated, the outbreaks of Covid have continued, a reported the CDC.

In one case between August and September, a cruise ship had an outbreak with 105 passengers and crew infected on a total of four consecutive trips, according to the CDC.

In another case between July and August, 58 passengers and crew aboard a ship were infected, the CDC reported.

The agency confirmed 1,359 cases between June 26 and October 21.

“It’s a high-risk environment,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “A cruise ship is a closed population where people are in close face-to-face contact often in very small places for long periods of time. “

More than 3,200 people were on board Norwegian Breakaway when it left New Orleans on November 28, stopping in Belize, Honduras and Mexico on the voyage.

All passengers and staff have been vaccinated, and those who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic, company officials said.

Federal health authorities are investigating the outbreak.

“We will never compromise on health and safety and we will, of course, continue to take all appropriate measures to ensure the well-being of all and protect public health,” Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement.

The ship has already taken to sea for another voyage.

More than 3 million people worldwide have sailed since operations resumed, the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 95% of cruise ships, told NBC News.

Saag recommends that cruise passengers get tested for Covid a few minutes before boarding a ship and wear masks when leaving the ship.

“I think it’s a wise approach,” he said. “The epidemic is going to be with us for quite a while, so what we’re going to do is use the knowledge we have and apply it.”

Schaffner, who called the Norwegian Cruise Line outbreak “substantial,” agreed.

“The virus is reigning and you have to adapt to it,” he said.

The Cruise Lines International Association says measures similar to these are already in place, with periodic testing during and towards the end of trips, as well as contact tracing and government reporting of positive cases.

Despite the vaccination requirements, reduced-capacity navigation and social distancing, cruise ships will never be Covid-proof, as many passengers who test negative before departure will show symptoms a few days later, said the association.

“They did everything they could. They have been very strict and methodical in the way they deal with the people who board and while they are on the ship, ”said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a marketing and technology company representing more. 5,000 travel agencies. “You are going to have revolutionary cases. But I firmly believe that the protocols in place will keep Covid at bay. “