ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — A rapidly spreading variant and close, indoor quarters are likely factors that have led to cruise ship passengers testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to the CDC.
A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most cases have not been severe.
“The vast majority of cases did not have severe outcomes, with only one COVID-19 hospitalization reported” in the outbreak on the Ruby Princess, which is still under investigation, said CDC spokesman Nick Spinelli.
And avid cruisers aren’t likely to give up the ocean-going travel freedom they lost for so many months during the pandemic.
A robust 2022 cruise schedule remains unchanged at the Port of Los Angeles, a port spokesman said.
Dr. Anissa Davis, Long Beach’s city health officer, said that while she’s keeping a close eye on cases, protocols regarding cruise ships don’t appear set to change.
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“Right now cases continue to be relatively low but are rising,” Davis said in a written statement. “We are concerned about every COVID-19 case in the city, including those on area cruise ships. As of now, no protocols regarding cruise ships are set to change, but we continue to watch the situation closely.”
She urged people to practice prevention strategies, including getting vaccinated and boosted when eligible, wearing well-fitting masks where crowds gather indoors, and staying home and getting tested if having symptoms.
CBS News reported on Wednesday, April 26, that the Ruby Princess docked at the Port of San Francisco after a trip to Hawaii with 143 passengers who had tested positive, according to information provided by that city’s health department to the news outlet.
Earlier this month, the Grand Princess returned to the Port of Los Angeles from a Hawaii trip with passengers who also tested positive.
The two ships are among 53 cruise ships currently sailing under the CDC’s “orange” category — which means 0.3% of passengers and/or crew members have tested positive.
The news follows the much-anticipated resumption of cruising after the industry was shut down for 15 months during the pandemic.
At the Port of Los Angeles, an expected 200 sailings are scheduled throughout 2022, the most since 2008.
The industry is seen as one that will be increasingly important locally, with each ship call bringing in more than $1 million in economic activity, according to the Port of L.A.
Cruises out of the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach resumed last summer with a set of protocols and vaccine requirements.
The CDC dropped its COVID-19 risk advisory for cruise ship travel in March, but still urges passengers to determine their own health risks before taking a cruise.
“Cruise travel is not a zero-risk activity,” said the CDC’s Spinelli in a written comment. “COVID-19, like other illnesses, can spread quickly in group settings like cruise ships because of close indoor proximity and extensive social interactions among passengers on board.”
Most of the cruises are categorized as “highly vaccinated” by the CDC’s classification, meaning more than 95% of the passengers are vaccinated, with crew vaccination rates at 100%.
Kathy Julian of Ventura, one of the passengers on board the Grand Princess for the trip to Hawaii, said she and her travel mates only learned later that the ship had already been put into the liner’s orange category.
“We hadn’t checked the CDC Dashboard before our cruise or we probably would have canceled,” she said.
She tested positive after she returned home.
“It’s certainly my choice to go cruising and I realize the risk involved, but it still seemed like there was a blatant lack of concern,” she said, adding that masking on board was practiced loosely. “All the way down the chain, things should have been done.”
A spokeswoman for Princess Cruises said ships continue operating in accordance with the CDC guidelines and were not at liberty to disclose case counts.
Long Beach resident Tina Tessina and her husband, Richard, were also on the Grand Princess Hawaii voyage and tested positive. But, she said, the Princess crew was prompt in arranging a well-appointed quarantine cabin with a balcony on the 12th deck, where others were also separately quarantined.
As for how the virus could have spread onboard, Tessina said there were stops along the way where groups disembarked to enjoy dinner out and other land-based activities before getting back on the ship. She also said someone may have tested negative when they got onboard initially but still may have already been exposed.
“It’s never going to be perfect,” Tessina, 78, a psychotherapist and writer, said, adding she and her husband, 79, were careful about masking. Both had their fourth shots before the trip.
Still, she said, they were out and about during the trip. And masking onboard the ship wasn’t strictly practiced.
“People aren’t necessarily smart about it,” Tessina said. “They don’t think of the consequences.”
But, she added, even when being careful, the virus can spread, especially in a social atmosphere like a cruise ship.
Her case was mild, she said. Her husband took a little longer to rebound, but both recovered without complications.
There were some minor things that could have been executed better, she said.
“We had very nice (quarantine) accommodations,” Tessina said. “The only problem was there was no information (provided) on what to do.”
Tessina, a seasoned cruiser, said she asked for instructions and those were then provided. But, she added, others on the deck weren’t apparently offered the instructions automatically.
Passengers had to make their own beds and change out their own towels while in quarantine.
The meal ordering app on the TVs in the rooms, Tessina said, also could be hard for some passengers to navigate.
Princess, she said, didn’t handle everything perfectly, but they “did a pretty good job.”
It was the first time she and her husband, a ballroom dance instructor, were able to take a cruise since 2020, Tessina said — and they’re game for more. They usually take four cruises a year and have been around the world.
“I’m not happy I got COVID, but I’m not blaming the ship,” Tessina said. “I could have gotten it on shore. I think if I’d needed a lot of care I would have gotten it — and sometimes you get better medical care on a ship than on land.”
Still, it all comes as a reminder that some risk remains.
“There’s always a risk,” Tessina said. “But I feel like I’m in more danger in the grocery store where there are a lot of people not wearing masks.”