CDC Stops Reporting COVID-19 Cases on Cruise Ships—Here's How You Can Still Stay Safe

As BA.5 cases continue to rise, cruises pose a significant risk of infection.

Cruise ship at sea
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Fast Facts

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ended its program to report COVID-19 cases on cruise ships.
  • Experts say this may make cruises less safe for people who want to avoid high levels of COVID-19 transmission
  • Travelers are encouraged to check in with their preferred cruise line about COVID-19 infections and safety precautions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will no longer report coronavirus cases for U.S. cruise ships, ending a program put in place during the pandemic to help the public monitor the spread of the virus.

The initiative, called the COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, ended on July 18, according to a notice from the CDC. Cruise lines will have to continue reporting case counts to the agency; however, the CDC will no longer share each ship's COVID status or a color-coded chart detailing the level of spread on their webpage.

"Cruise ships have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs," the CDC said on its website. "While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward."

The agency also stated they ended the program because it depended upon each cruise line to have the same COVID-19 screening testing standards, which may now vary among cruise lines.

How Will This Affect COVID-19 Safety on Cruise Ships?

The CDC's decision to end the COVID-19 program will allow cruise lines to set their own COVID-19 policies, Sherrill Brown, MD, medical director of infection prevention at AltaMed Health Services, told Health.

Dr. Brown said depending on the cruise line, COVID safety precautions could be more or less strict, which could result in some cruise lines being safer to travel on compared to others.

For people looking to book a cruise, they won't have access to publicly available coronavirus data for cruise travel and "will no longer be able to tell if one cruise line or another has a better track record of reducing COVID cases on board," Dr. Brown added.

Terez Malka, MD, emergency medicine physician and pediatrician at K Health, told Health this change could also make it easier for people to go on a cruise because some companies will drop requirements like testing before embarking and while on board.

In addition, she said customers may not end up needing to quarantine while on a cruise in the event of testing positive, though some cruise lines may require quarantine if you are having symptoms and test positive.

"However, this also means that cruise travel will be less safe for those that are trying to avoid areas with high volumes of COVID infections, and means that travelers and staff will not know the COVID rates on board," Dr. Malka said.

Nevertheless, the CDC said customers will have the option "to contact their cruise line directly" to get information about outbreaks and other COVID-19 protocols on board their trip.

"Travelers will have to do their homework and trust that the cruise line they choose to travel with is following the recommended precautions and being honest regarding any outbreaks on board," Dr. Brown said.

What Are Cruise Lines Doing in Light of the CDC's Decision?

In a statement to Health, Carnival Cruise Line said it will work closely with public health officials to operate with a set of robust protocols to maintain public health and public confidence. Carnival said it welcomes the CDC's decision to end its current program, and it will "review the newest guidelines when they are posted in the coming days."

For now, Carnival Cruise said there are no immediate changes to the current COVID-19 protocols they have in place and guests should continue to use its "Have Fun. Be Safe" website when planning their upcoming trip.

Meanwhile, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), will also continue to have health and safety protocols and policies in place, and will continue to prioritize the health and safety of passengers, crew, and communities, Anne Madison, a spokesperson for CLIA, told Health.

Is It Safe to Take a Cruise During The BA.5 Wave?

According to the CDC, as of July 16, the BA.5 Omicron subvariant makes up nearly 79% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

Dr. Brown said because BA.5 is much more contagious than previous variants, a crowded cruise environment where individuals are not wearing masks will increase the chance of COVID-19 spreading both indoors and outdoors, especially on a crowded deck or pool.

She added while there have been fewer reported COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise lines in the news, outbreaks are still happening. Since cruise ships travel from one port to another with large volumes of people, getting on a cruise fosters an environment where "it would be very easy for outbreaks to occur."

Dr. Malka echoed this message and said since COVID cases and severity have risen significantly with the BA.5 wave, "there would be a significant risk of COVID infection when embarking on a cruise (or any vacation that involves crowds, is not requiring masks and distancing, and is not tracking cases)."

Travelers intending to go on cruises need to consider the safety of traveling in a closed environment where testing is not occurring and others could be spreading the virus unknowingly, Dr. Malka said. In addition, individuals that are at high risk of severe COVID complications or hoping to avoid COVID infection should opt not to embark on cruises that do not have COVID safety protocols and testing in place.

"The fact that there is less oversight could lead to a situation where cruise travel may be more risky if the cruise lines are not following very strict standards for COVID-19 safety," Dr. Brown said. "One must weigh the risks of travel and potentially being exposed and infected with the benefit of visiting beautiful places and experiencing cruise life."

How to Stay Safe on a Cruise

People who plan to go on a cruise should take safety precautions to keep themselves and others around them safe. One thing to do before going on a cruise is to research COVID-19 and other safety precautions being taken onboard by a specific cruise line.

For example, Dr. Malka said even though the CDC is no longer requiring COVID-19 testing, some cruise lines may still require a test prior to travel and while on board.

If you are unable to find a cruise line that is enforcing COVID precautions—or if you just want to be as COVID-safe as possible while on a cruise—Dr. Malka and Dr. Brown said there are other measures people can take to stay safe. Those include:

  • Wearing masks indoors and outdoors in all public places or crowded environments.
  • Engaging in activities that take place outdoors, have limited crowds, or are socially distanced.
  • Drinking and dining outdoors when possible.
  • Choosing to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and staying up to date with boosters at least two weeks in advance of the cruise.
  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using hand sanitizer regularly.

Dr. Malka added travelers can also avoid excessive alcohol, eat healthily and get proper sleep to help support their immune system which can decrease their risk of getting sick.

"I would also recommend that cruise travelers follow these same precautions when stopping at different ports throughout the cruise," Dr. Brown said.

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