On July 18, 2022, the CDC ended its COVID-19 monitoring program for cruise ships leaving from and sailing to the United States. As part of that program, the CDC had shared COVID-19 outbreak numbers and trends with the public, but the agency will no longer do so.
The Washington Post explains:
A notice posted on the CDC website for cruise travel said the program ended Monday. A sortable color-coded chart and spreadsheet that detailed the level of spread on ships is no longer viewable on the webpage, the agency confirmed.
"CDC has determined that the cruise industry has access to the necessary tools (e.g., cruise-specific recommendations and guidance, vaccinations, testing instruments, treatment modalities, and non-pharmaceutical interventions) to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 on board," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an email.
This follows a decision made earlier in the year by the CDC to stop requiring pre-boarding COVID testing. The Washington Post also explains:
In January, the public health agency turned the mandatory rules that cruise lines had to follow during much of the pandemic into recommendations for a program in which they could opt in. Those rules included testing and vaccination requirements for passengers and crew.
Now, the cruise industry will be responsible for implementing whatever strategies it wants regarding mitigating and reporting COVID-19 cases. Cruise companies are already taking advantage of these relaxed rules, and some are doing away with testing requirements altogether, as Omicron variant BA.5 continues to spread.
According to Reason.com:
In another sign that the cruise industry is transitioning to a post-COVID operating model, Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Cruise Line, the industry's two largest cruise lines, announced last week they will loosen testing requirements for vaccinated passengers.
Beginning August 4, vaccinated passengers on Carnival company sailings that last less than six days will no longer be required to provide a negative PCR or antigen test result before boarding vessels. A similar policy will take effect on Royal Caribbean company sailings on August 8.
So how will the public now find out if there are outbreaks on the cruises they want to take? Well, Jim Walker of Cruise Law News explains:
Without the publicly available coronavirus data, the CDC's page for cruise travel says customers allegedly "have the option of contacting their cruise line directly regarding outbreaks occurring on board their ship."
How likely is it that cruise lines will be completely transparent and forthcoming with that information? Jim Walker thinks it's not very likely, and is alarmed by this new move by the CDC:
The sudden ending of the disease reporting comes exactly at a time when the CDC was reporting that 100% of cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports had at least .03% of COVID-19 aboard. In other words, the CDC designated 100% of all cruise ships to be "orange" [the highest level] under the CDC's color coded COVID-19 dashboard. Absolutely no cruise ships had been deemed by the CDC to be "green" (free of COVID-19) when the agency announced that it was ending its reporting of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships.
The unexpected and abrupt ending of the color tracking system by the CDC comes at a time when the COVID BA.5 variant is continuing to surge. The CDC's imprudent decision leaves the public reliant on cruise lines to voluntarily publish COVID-19 results. But the cruise industry has consistently demonstrated a lack of transparency when it comes to releasing disease statistics or other unpleasant news. The result, predictably enough, is cruise lines have largely been able to keep outbreaks of COVID-19 which occur on their ships secret.
This has become clear when the Carnival-owned Holland America Line's Zaandam recently had over 20% of its guests test positive for COVID-19.
The Zaandam isn't the only ship with current or recent COVID-19 outbreaks. According to Andy Bloch's cruise ship COVID-19 outbreak tracker, significant outbreaks recently occurred on the Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas, Celebrity Cruises' Summit, Viking's Orion. and Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady. Most recently, Royal Caribbean's ship Jewel of the Seas, which left Amsterdam on July 26 and is scheduled to return on August 7, has had an outbreak of at least 64 COVID cases among guests and another 4 among crew members. Jim Walker reports the disturbing and unhelpful response by the cruise ship's Infection Control Officer, who informed the crew:
"Unfortunately our guest numbers continue to soar. Best way to help with the spread is to try to use that entire bottle of Oxivir in one day when sanitizing your areas and to encourage guest to use the hand sanitizers around the ship. [Jim Walker's note: A bottle of sanitizer is useless when this virus is transmitted through the air]. Front of house personal, please be vocal in a pleasant and happy manner."
Andy Bloch has been monitoring cruise ship COVID outbreaks—using data reported to the CDC by cruise ships and data reported by the CDC to the public—and has been posting them to his free publicly available website. He reported recently that the CDC has removed their cruise ship tracker completely and stopped updating it on August 1, 2022. You can follow his page to see whatever information he is able to report, and also follow Jim Walker's website, "Cruise Law News," which promises to provide "Everything Cruise Lines Don't Want You to Know." I'm glad there are folks out there trying to provide the public with data to help keep them safe!