New voluntary CDC COVID-19 program for cruise ships launched

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its new COVID-19 program for cruise ships operating from American ports.

The new program extends many of the provisions of the former Conditional Sailing Order, but on a temporary basis.

The program is recommended but not mandatory, with cruise lines given until February 18th, 2022 to opt into the system.

The new program will retain many features of the Conditional Sailing Order, but will be voluntary for cruise lines

RELATED: CDC still planning to make Conditional Sailing Order voluntary for US cruises

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Under the new voluntary program, there will continue to be tiered colour statuses for COVID-19 cases on ships, a move that the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), representing more than 90% of cruise operators, has lashed out against.

Cruise lines choosing to opt into this program will be required to follow all recommendations and guidance as a condition of their participation in the program, meaning they will not be able to pick and choose which recommendations they follow.

They will need to continue to maintain detailed COVID-19 response plans, and port agreements, as well asonboard testing for passengers and crew, in addition to other policies and procedures such as enhanced sanitation, social distancing and vaccine mandates.

The CLIA has criticised the new program as unfairly punitive, requiring cruise lines to enact mitigation measures that far exceed those required of other sectors of the travel industry.

“Regrettably, upon initial review, the latest CDC guidance appears out of step with the actual public health conditions on cruise ships and unnecessary in light of societal trends away from more restrictive measures,” the association said.

“We are confounded by the CDC’s imposition of even more complex and unwarranted measures which ignore empirical evidence that the industry’s protocols have provided a greater level of COVID mitigation than most any other setting,” it added.

“The CDC’s guidance for multitiered cruises is counterproductive to consumers, creating market confusion between the various tiers, and potentially unworkable in practice,” it said.

The CLIA said the cruise industry has proven it can prevent the spread of COVID-19 at sea

The CLIA said its members had worked hard to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect passengers, crew, and the public against any adverse health consequences since cruises resumed in the US last year, and said a Travel Health Notice for the cruise industry was unfair.

“The CDC has long recognized the paramount importance of vaccination in protecting against COVID-19 and the vaccination rate on cruise ships is close to 100%, whereas on land it is only about 63%,” the organisation pointed out. “It seems unnecessarily discriminatory against cruise to maintain that the chances of getting COVID-19 on a cruise ‘is very high’ even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.”

While there have been several thousand known cases of COVID-19 aboard cruise ships since the industry reopened in late 2020 and more widely in 2021, the reported numbers are a fraction of the total number of passengers carried.

Outbreaks aboard cruise ships have been kept within small groups in proportion to the total passenger numbers, with most incidents involving only a few dozen people.

Royal Caribbean is the only cruise line to have detailed its total number of COVID-19 cases to date, with more than 2,500 cases having been reported aboard its ships since cruises resumed last year, compared to 1.5 million passengers carried.

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