In the four months since cruises have returned to operation in the United States, more than 1,350 people sailing on U.S.-based cruise ships have tested positive for COVID-19, a small fraction of total cruisers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the figure last month in an order extending its COVID restrictions on U.S.-based cruise ships until at least Jan. 15.
The low numbers are evidence the CDC’s COVID-safety protocols have led to cruises restarting “successfully” and have managed to avert overwhelming medical facilities with people infected with the virus on board their cruise ships, according to the CDC.
The low number of cruise- related cases could be seen as an endorsement of the idea that strict COVID procedures keep cases down, Galveston County Local Health Authority Philip Keiser said.
“I think it proves if you take very stringent measures, you can keep COVID rates very low,” Keiser said. “They’ve done just about every measure that one can do to keep the numbers down.”
Cruises in the United States were canceled March 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. They didn’t restart until late June 2021.
The CDC report doesn’t identify how many total people have cruised on U.S.-based cruise ships since July, but the number of COVID-positive passengers is unquestionably small compared to the total number of people who have sailed during the restart.
In Galveston alone, more than 168,000 people cruised out of the port between the beginning of July and the end of September. The Cruise Lines International Association estimated about 600,000 people have sailed on cruise ships since the restart began.
Five different ships have made numerous trips out of Galveston since July. As of Oct. 21, there were 83 cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports.
Since the restart, one COVID death has been connected to a Galveston-based cruise ship. Oklahoma resident Marilyn Tackett died Aug. 14 after being evacuated from the Carnival Vista. Health officials said Tackett didn’t contract COVID on board the ship. Rather, she was infected before boarding and didn’t report her symptoms to the cruise line beforehand.
The agency said its mandatory safety requirements, which mandate cruise companies require high levels of vaccinations among passengers and crews, should stay in place until at least January. After Jan. 15, following the CDC rules will be voluntary, according to the agency.
Cruises out of Galveston aren’t yet back to their pre-pandemic levels, but local officials said they expect the number of cruise passengers per cruise to increase through the winter and into the new year.
Those increases will come alongside the arrival of more ships and of larger ships. Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas set sail Monday on its first- ever cruise from Galveston.
The port Monday said the Adventure of the Seas was equal in size to Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, which is the largest ship to ever sail out of Galveston. The Adventure of the Seas carries around 3,100 passengers per cruise.
Later this month, Disney Cruise Lines also will return to the port as the Disney Wonder begins its holiday-season cruises. The Wonder carries up to 2,400 passengers at a time.
Keiser said he was pleased the CDC rules would be in place until January but worried about the risks the switch to voluntary compliance may bring, including an increase in the number of unvaccinated people going on cruises.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the cruise lines do,” Keiser said. “They’re going to be under pressure to make it easier for people to cruise.”