Several cruise lines, led by Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are loosening coronavirus testing rules, as the Washington Post and USA Today recently reported. This follows the unwise and inexplicable decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost two weeks ago, to stop reporting on COVID-19 cases on cruise ships for all passengers and crew members.

Previously, the CDC had a color-coded system of green (no COVID), yellow (less than .03 %) and orange (more than .03%). On July 18, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped reporting on COVID-19 cases on cruise ships. The sudden ending of the disease reporting comes exactly at a time when the CDC was reporting that 100% of cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports had at least .03% of COVID-19 aboard. In other words, the CDC designated 100% of all cruise ships to be “orange” under the CDC’s color coded COVID-19 dashboard. Absolutely no cruise ships had been deemed by the CDC to be “green” (free of COVID-19) when the agency announced that it was ending its reporting of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships.

The unexpected and abrupt ending of the color tracking system by the CDC comes at a time when the COVID BA.5 variant is continuing to surge. The CDC’s imprudent decision leaves the public reliant on cruise lines to voluntarily publish COVID-19 results. But the cruise industry has consistently demonstrated a lack of transparency when it comes to releasing disease statistics or other unpleasant news. The result, predictably enough, is cruise lines have largely been able to keep outbreaks of COVID-19 which occur on their ships secret.

This has become clear when the Carnival owned Holland America Line’s Zaandam recently had over 20% of its guests test positive for COVID-19. (There are other examples I will briefly mention below).

According to a “CDC Cruise Ship COVID outbreak tracker,” maintained by Andy Bloch (a graduate of MIT and Harvard Law School), based on data provided by the cruise lines to the CDC, the outbreak occurred during the HAL’s cruise ship’s recent voyage from Rotterdam to Boston.

Fortunately, Mr. Bloch makes his tracker, with graphs and extensive data, publicly available on a user friendly site which you can access here. Mr. Bloch publishes his tracker with the expressed goal of educating the public. He expressed his hope “that it may help convince the CDC to reconsider and continue the program.”

There is a certain irony in the Zaandam being the first cruise ship to have a significant COVID outbreak just after the CDC went dark. After all, the Zaandam has a rather infamous history of being what the Guardian newspaper calls the “ship that became a global Covid pariah” back in March 2020.

The CDC’s old system of reporting COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships by releasing no data but just color-coded icons was always fairly useless, as some people on Twitter have noted. Now nearly all cruise ships are coded as “orange.” There has been no readily available official disclosure of how many passengers and crew members on cruise ships have tested positive for coronavirus or the percentage of people (above the minimal threshold of .03%) who were infected. Nor is there public data readily available reflecting trends indicating either an improving or worsening situation. For an agency that reports detailed data on Norovirus cases, the CDC appears to have been influenced by the cruise industry to keep the true status of cruise ship COVID-19 cases secret.

Without the publicly available coronavirus data, the CDC’s page for cruise travel says customers allegedly “have the option of contacting their cruise line directly regarding outbreaks occurring on board their ship.” This sentence,  alone, shows how clueless the CDC has become, as there is no chance that the recalcitrant cruise lines will be forthcoming to the public with accurate and reliable health information relative to what is actually happening on their cruise ships.

In addition to the outbreak on the Zaandam, Mr. Bloch’s tracker shows other recent examples of significant COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships, such as on the Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, Celebrity Cruises’ Summit, Viking’s Orion. and Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady.

In fairness to the cruise industry, Mr. Bloch’s tracker also shows those ships with a low COVID rate. On Twitter, he says “with pre-cruise testing, cruises can be a safer vacation choice than land-based hotels that don’t require tests.”

With the cruise lines irresponsibly dropping testing requirements, let’s hope the CDC keeps reporting COVID-19 data so that the public can follow Mr. Bloch and his tracking program.

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P.S. It’s a tad surprising that none of the major newspapers which routinely cover the cruise industry, such as the Miami Herald, Washington Post or USA Today, has reported on Mr. Bloch’s CDC Cruise COVID tracker.  To my knowledge, only Poynter cited to Mr. Bloch, in an article titled: The CDC ends COVID reporting on cruise ships. Is this good for public health?

You can follow Mr. Bloch on Twitter: @Andy_Bloch.

Image Credit: Barek – Public Domain, commons / wikimedia.