MSC Virtuosa appears to have become the first cruise ship to suffer a major COVID-19 outbreak onboard since cruises resumed in July last year.
There were multiple reports of several dozen COVID-19 infections aboard the ship during its last two cruises from the UK, leading to the deaths of at least two passengers.
During a voyage last week, a passenger died onboard the ship, while after the ship’s most recent cruise, a second passenger died in hospital, according to the Daily Echo.
Many more passengers have reported testing positive for COVID-19 immediately after the cruises, with Cruise Law News estimating 75 to 100 infections among passengers.
MSC Cruises has acknowledge the COVID-19 outbreak aboard MSC Virtuosa, and has tightened its COVID-19 mitigation protocols in response, but has not revealed the number of infections.
A spokesperson for the cruise line confirmed that there had been an ‘uptick’ in positive test results for COVID-19, but didn’t address the reports of COVID-19 spreading on the ship itself.
“MSC Virtuosa will be in Southampton tomorrow scheduled to operate normally both for disembarkation of current guests and embarkation of new ones,” the cruise line said.
“Over the past two cruises and in line with the development of the pandemic ashore in the UK that we have all seen and read about in recent weeks, we have also seen an uptick on suspect cases both at embarkation and during the cruise,” it added.
“As you might know, our protocol calls for testing of all passengers – vaccinated as well as non-vaccinated – prior to embarkation, mid-cruise and before disembarkation in addition to several other on-board health and safety measures designed to protect guests, crew and the communities we visit,” the statement added.
However, according to Dave Monk of the Ship Monk blog, MSC Cruises was forced by UK port authorities to tighten its health and safety measures following complaints from some passengers who tested positive after sailing.
Passengers had reportedly raised concerns about the self-service buffet, lack of social distancing and non-enforcement of mask wearing.
MSC Cruises has now reportedly agreed to increase testing of crew and passengers, improve sanitisation in public areas, make more announcements on mask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing, and change the buffet back to one served by the crew.
As has been noted by Dave Monk, MSC Cruises was one of the first cruise lines to resume operations last year, and carried 60,000 passengers during its initial restart cruise season out of Italy in August without incident.
The ship sailed with strict rules intended to prevent the spread of the virus. These measures worked through much of last year, before vaccines become widely available in most major cruise markets.
Unfortunately while it seems MSC needed intervention by the health authorities to ensure they maintain proper and sensible protocols, my experience on @PrincessCruises @VikingCruises @SagaHolidaysUK and @pandocruises was protocols were rigorous, strict and very reassuring. https://t.co/h7hss8AcsW
— Gary Bembridge (@garybembridge) September 10, 2021
It isn’t clear yet what caused the sudden spike in COVID-19 infections aboard the two most recent cruises of MSC Virtuosa, but social media reports by passengers aboard the cruises suggest there was a loosening of health and safety measures, which may have compounded the situation.
Although COVID-19 reports aboard cruise ships have steadily increased this year, so have the number of cruise ships in operation. Around 200 vessels have now resumed cruising, compared to just a handful during late 2020.
The previously reported COVID-19 infections aboard cruise ships have been handfuls of passengers, usually travelling within the same group, which have been identified and contained on-board.
MSC Virtuosa is the largest COVID-19 outbreak in terms of numbers since cruises resumed last year.