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Is it safe to go on a cruise? Here's what you need to know

Is there such a thing as a COVID-safe cruise after the recent outbreak on a Carnival ship? Here's what you need to know.

SEATTLE — While it may seem as though the country is tentatively moving on from COVID-19 just in time for the summer travel season, a recent outbreak has some questioning their plans.

Passengers on a Carnival Cruise that docked in Seattle said more than 100 people on board tested positive for COVID. The outbreak “overwhelmed” the staff, whose response to the situation was chaotic, passengers said.

Now, with many of those passengers quarantined in Seattle hotels and others voyaging aboard the cruise ship to Alaska, many are wondering if they should make their summer cruise plans yet or if there’s anything they can do to cruise safely.

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Here is a breakdown of everything you need to know about cruising and COVID:

Should I cruise this summer?

The short answer is it’s complicated.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lifted its mandates for cruise ships, it is suggesting all passengers get up to date with their vaccinations before boarding.

Additionally, the CDC advises those at increased risk or who are immunocompromised should talk to their health care provider before heading on their trip.

Health experts have repeatedly warned that the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters, like those experienced onboard ships. The CDC says that even if passengers are vaccinated, the virus can still spread on a cruise ship and put everyone on board at risk of infection.

Previously, the CDC had issued a Conditional Sailing Order for cruise ships, which detailed a number of requirements and precautions that cruise ships had to undergo in order to embark on any trips. The order expired in January.

Since then, cruise lines can choose to participate in the CDC-recommended COVID-19 Program.

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What is the CDC’s COVID-19 program for cruises?

While it’s not required, the CDC recommends that all cruise vessels opt into its COVID-19 program.

The program tracks the status of the virus on each vessel in U.S. waters, gives each vessel a color code depending on the level of COVID-19 onboard and gives a threshold for the percentage of passengers that should be vaccinated on each voyage.

The color designations for passenger cruises are as follows:

  • Green: Zero cases have been reported on the ship.
  • Yellow: Less than 0.3% of total passengers and crew are positive for COVID-19.
  • Orange: 0.3% or more of total passengers and crew are positive for COVID-19.
  • Red: More than 0.3% of total passengers and crew are positive for COVID-19 and there has been sustained transmission, conditions are overwhelming onboard medical and health resources and variants of concern have been found in the onboard cases.

A gray designation signifies that the vessel has opted out of the CDC’s COVID-19 program.

Under the yellow, orange and red designations, the CDC launches an investigation, during which the CDC notifies the ship of its status and reminds the ship of preventative measures.

Under a red designation, the CDC may also require the ship to test all passengers mid-voyage, increase routine testing for crew and require masking for passengers and crew in indoor settings.

The CDC also provides a dashboard so that passengers can check the status of their vessel before, during and after their voyage.

As of May 5, there are 91 cruise ships that have opted into the program and no ships that have opted out. 

Of the 91 ships, 15 are in the green category, 14 are in the yellow category and 62 are in the orange. 

There are zero ships in the red category.

As for the vaccination threshold, the CDC currently recommends at least 90% of passengers and crew are vaccinated.

The CDC also requires each cruise operator in the program to have a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan as well as an agreement with every port and local health authority where it plans to dock.

What’s in the port and local health authority agreement?

These agreements can make additional requirements for cruise ships and clarify each party’s obligation in the event of an outbreak.

Carnival Cruise Line, whose ship recently experienced an outbreak and docked in Seattle, opted into the CDC’s program and has an agreement with the Washington Department of Health, the Port of Seattle and the King County Department of Public Health.

Under the agreement, Carnival agreed to ensure 95% of its eligible passengers and crew were vaccinated.

Along with agreeing to provide sufficient medical care and housing while aboard the vessel, Carnival Cruise Lines is responsible for any costs related to additional medical care, housing and transportation that it requests or is requested on its behalf.

In the event of an outbreak onboard its ship, Carnival is also responsible for cleaning port facilities or transportation vehicles impacted by the outbreak.

RELATED: Seattle businesses hope for revenue boost as cruise season kicks off

What can I do to prevent catching COVID on board?

Ensuring you’re up to date with your recommended vaccination is the best and most effective way to prevent COVID infection, according to the CDC. However, there are some additional steps you can take before boarding, while onboard and even after you disembark to protect you and your fellow travelers.

First off, you should check the vaccination status and status of the ship you are about to board as well as if the operator is requiring vaccinations or testing.

Even if the vessel isn’t requiring either, it is best to get up to date with vaccinations before embarking and testing no more than three days before boarding.

The CDC advises anyone traveling overseas to get travel insurance and to have a plan in case you need to get care in a foreign country.

If you have symptoms, test positive or have close contact with a person with COVID-19, then don’t board the cruise ship.

While onboard, the CDC recommends wearing a well-fitting mask while indoors or in a crowded outdoor space. Also, pay attention to mask requirements on board, which can change throughout the voyage depending on the number of people who test positive while on board.

Washing your hands regularly, avoiding contact with anyone who is sick, and isolating if you experience any symptoms are other ways to prevent spreading the virus.

If you develop symptoms or are exposed while aboard, you will be isolated immediately and asked to quarantine based on your vaccination status. You also may be subject to testing.

After you disembark, the CDC recommends testing 3-5 days afterward and to self-monitor for 10 days after traveling.

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