Headlines generated in major newspapers by this year’s Seatrade Cruise Convention last week announced that the cruise lines promised  “100% testing” of guests and crew members.  This is a dangerously misleading headline.

The cruise lines’ proposed testing protocols are not remotely “100%” as far as availability, accuracy, consistency or responsibility.

The proposed testing is clearly not “100%” accurate. Nor are COVID tests, particularly rapid tests, “100%” available to those who wish to cruise (or to the cruise lines themselves).  Nor are cruise industry proposols consistent with respect to the  procedures or the number of tests for guests versus crew members. Cruise lines also do not even pretend that they will be 100% responsible for the payment of the test which they will require each passenger to obtain.

There is Not a 100% Consistency Between the Type of Required Tests

The Miami Herald reported that although the cruise industry committed to what it’s calling “100% testing” of passengers and crew,  it is not offering specifics about what “testing will be used (or) when it will be done . . . ” In Europe,  MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises perform rapid testing in the terminal, with a more thorough PCR test given if a positive result shows up. On TUI cruises (involving the Mein Schiff fleet) passengers must simply show a negative test taken before sailing. There is no indication that cruise ships leaving from U.S. ports will require all guests to undergo both PRP tests and, later, rapid tests shortly before they embark.

There is Not a 100% Consistentcy Between Testing of Guests and Crew Members

The Miami Herald reports that the Royal Caribbean – Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Healthy Sail Panel requires:

▪ All passengers should be tested for COVID-19 between five days and 24 hours prior to boarding; and

▪ Crew should be tested in their home countries before leaving to join a ship and then again at the end of a seven-day on board quarantine period, ideally using PCR tests. A third test may be administered the day of boarding (if feasible based on costs).

I first pointed out this discrepancy two weeks ago in Why The Royal Caribbean – NCL “Healthy Sail” Protocols Will Fail. The RCCL-NCL joint panel does not require guests to undergo mandatory multiple tests under its proposed recommendations. A guest is required only to submit evidence of a single negative test, apparently at their own expense, taken as long as five days before the cruise. There is no proposed mandatory requirement for a negative rapid test at the port immediately before embarking. This failure completely ignores the fact that a guest can be infected, after the first test is taken, when they interact with others before the cruise (in bars, restuarants, supermarkets, etc.) in airports and buses traveling to embarkations points.

Rapid Tests (For Guests) May be Not be 100% Available 

The panel suggests that rapid test results (which it concedes are available in as little as 15 minutes for crew members) may be a possible option but claims that they are not “logistically or financially feasible” for passengers. Cruise executive Fain then concedes in a recorded interview two weeks ago  (which you can listen to here) that rapid tests are currently unavailable. It is unreasonable for cruise lines to propose resuming cruising if they do not believe that rapid tests will be 100% available for all crew members and guests alike.

Cruise Lines May Not be 100% Responsible for Guest Tests

The Miami Herald reported that cruise lines are largely silent about the specifics of testing and “whether the passenger or the companies will pay for it.” If the cruise line is not promising to pay for the tests, you can assume that you as a guest will have to do so

There is not a 100% Consistency Between the Protocols Submitted to the CDC and the UK Chamber of Shipping

There are significant differences between CLIA’s recommendations to the CDC and its recommendations submitted to the U.K. Chamber of Shipping. Recommendations to the Chamber of Shipping do not include preboarding COVID-19 testing for passengers – only for crew, as UK Managing Editor of Cruise Critic Adam Coulter stated. He noted that the screening protocols submitted in the U.K. “focus on people who arrive and are symptomatic, not on those who might be asymptomatic.” Most importantly, the news of CLIA’s “100% testing” appears to contradict restart plans drawn up by CLIA in the UK and submitted to the UK Chamber of Shipping “which explicitly do not include mandatory pre-boarding testing for passengers – just for crew.” As matters now stand, the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office still advises against all ocean cruising.

COVID Tests are Not 100% Accurate

Carnival CEO Arnold admitted at the Seatrade Cruise conference last as the virus continues to spread on land, it will likely spread at sea. Despite tests, there will still be shipboard outbreaks.

CLIA touts “100% testing” of guests but does not explain how or where this will take place nor does it address the availability or accuracy of such tests. Leading epidemiologists and even the paid experts themselves on the RCL-NCL “Healthy Sail” panel have made clear that the proposed testing is not 100% reliable. But the cruise executives continue to tout cruising, with NCL CEO Frank Del Rio going so far as to claim that a cruise ship is “safer than anywhere else in the world.”

As Dr. Eric Ding pointed out, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a former acting commissioner of the F.D.A., who serves as one of the chairs (with Dr. Gottlieb) on the Healthy Sail panel, acknowledged that “passengers who are exposed to the virus en route to the cruise ship would not necessarily test negative, but could be infectious.”

A DJ hired to work on the Silver Spirit luxury cruise ship, which been chartered for the first cruise from Saudi Arabia since the pandemic, tested positive for the virus last month, as we reported in our article titled Silver Spirit Red Sea Cruise Cut Short Due to COVID-19. The ship, which is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, was following the Healthy Sail Panel’s recommendations.

The DJ tested positive nothwaithstanding the fact that she had been tested prior to the cruise. Also, the Silver Spirit was the first ultra-luxury cruise ship to sail with a certification in infection prevention from DNV GL, the world’s leading classification society. The ship was awarded the certification on August 24, 2020, just three days before the ship sailed on the cruise in question. MarineInsight quoted Roberto Martinoli, Silversea’s President and CEO, as saying “we are proud to become the first ultra-luxury cruise line to gain the certification in infection prevention for maritime, demonstrating our unwavering commitment to protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of our guests, crew and the destinations we visit.” The point is that tests can show false negatives even for luxury cruise ships with high caliber health certifications.

The recent “super-spreader” event at the White House and Rose Garden which infected the President and nearly two dozen senior members of his administration ten days sago should be clear proof that COVID-19 tests are not perfect.

Newspaper journalists, travel writers and cruise bloggers may all write about “100% testing” but there is no such certainty that COVID-19 outbreaks will be avoided if cruising resumes.

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Photo credit: Symphony of the Seas – Darthvadrouw – CC BY-SA 4.0 commons / wikimedia; By Derek Kastner from Reston, VA, USA – Carnival Conquest VII, CC BY 2.0, commons / wikimedia.