Four crew members aboard Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Independence of the Seas have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than two dozen other crew members are in quarantine, according to the Galveston County Health District.
The infections have caused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to put the ship under tighter monitoring procedures, just 12 days before it’s supposed to embark on a safety- proving test cruise from the Port of Galveston.
Galveston County Local Health Authority Philip Keiser confirmed the infections Tuesday.
The infected people all are asymptomatic, Keiser said. It’s not clear whether the crew members were vaccinated.
The infections aren’t surprising because of strict monitoring of crew members, rising numbers of COVID-19 cases around the world because of the delta variant and the high number of unvaccinated people, Keiser said.
“The system is catching things,” Keiser said. “But with the rising rates that we have, I worry about any new cases.”
The health district hasn’t confirmed whether cases on the cruise ship were caused by the delta variant, Keiser said.
The confirmation came one day after the CDC updated a cruise-tracking web portal to indicate it had increased its monitoring of the Independence of the Seas because of COVID-19 infection.
The CDC on Monday changed the status of the Independence of the Seas from green to orange. The organization uses a four-color system to track the status of cruise ships that are working to return to business after a 16-month shutdown caused by the pandemic.
Ships without any COVID cases are noted as green and have been given the go-ahead to sail with passengers or to make other preparations to begin their return. Ships listed as yellow or orange in the CDC system have reported COVID cases and are more closely monitored as they continue to make preparations. Ships with a red status aren’t allowed to sail.
The CDC didn’t respond to requests for comment about the status change.
The orange status means at least one crew member aboard the Independence of the Seas tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days and less than 1 percent of crew members aboard the ship have tested positive. The CDC will begin an investigation if more than 1 percent of crew members report infections, according to the agency’s guidelines.
The Independence of the Seas returned to Galveston June 2. Since then, the ship has carried only Royal Caribbean employees, as it began making preparations for a return to business. Since arriving, crew members have been shuttled into the port from local airports to board the ship.
A Port of Galveston spokeswoman Tuesday confirmed crew members haven’t been allowed to leave the ship and go to locations into Galveston.
Last week, Royal Caribbean confirmed plans to operate a safety-proving test cruise from Galveston on Aug. 1 and announced it would soon begin selecting volunteers from the public to board the cruise. The test cruise is a step required for Royal Caribbean to potentially allow more unvaccinated people aboard its ships.
Under CDC rules, ships can sail with paying passengers if at least 95 percent of passengers are vaccinated. Otherwise, a company has to prove that its safety measures work to stop onboard spread of COVID-19.
Royal Caribbean has contracts with the Port of Galveston and Galveston County Health District allowing the company to sail test cruises, Keiser said. As of Tuesday, the company still had permission to sail Aug. 1, Keiser said.
“We’re just going to see how this plays out,” Keiser said.
Late Tuesday, Royal Caribbean responded to questions about the Independence of the Seas and confirmed there was a case on board the ship. The company said the change in status wouldn’t affect the August test cruise.
The Independence of the Seas isn’t the only Royal Caribbean International ship being closely monitored for COVID-19 cases. As of Monday, seven of the company’s 14 U.S.-based ships were being monitored or investigated because of recently reported COVID cases.
By comparison, only four of Carnival Cruise Lines’ 16 U.S.-based ships were being monitored or investigated because of recent COVID-19 infections. None of those four ships operates from Galveston.