By Quentin Fottrell
President Joe Biden has said the pandemic is over , despite more than 300 people dying from COVID-related illness every day. Now cruise lines, which experienced severe disruptions during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak and, in some cases were stranded offshore due to ports refusing them permission to dock due to coronavirus outbreaks onboard, are relaxing their health protocols.
Norwegian Cruise Line, one of the largest cruise lines in the world, said Monday that passengers will no longer be required to show they are vaccinated against COVID-19, show the results of such a test, or wear a mask. The new policy goes into action Tuesday. Harry Sommer, chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line /zigman2/quotes/204183397/composite NCLH -0.48% , cited “significant, positive progress in the public-health environment.”
“Health and safety are always our first priority; in fact, we were the health and safety leaders from the very start of the pandemic,” Sommer said in a statement. “Many travelers have been patiently waiting to take their long-awaited vacation at sea and we cannot wait to celebrate their return.” Ships also have new protocols, including more sanitation, upgraded air filtration and enhanced health services.
Would you take a cruise?
“I would not go on a large cruise ship that did not have reasonable COVID prevention measures, and a good contingency plan for dealing with illness,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief at the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah. “A lot of passengers on cruises fall into high-risk groups, and medical care and evacuation are challenging.”
“We could argue about what is enough prevention,” Pavia told MarketWatch. “Vaccination seems to be the minimum standard. It won’t prevent introduction and spread but will reduce the likelihood of severe consequences. Testing is another fairly easy ‘slice of the Swiss cheese .’ With other measures in place, routine required masking could be relaxed.”
Would Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, take a cruise that did not require vaccination, a COVID-19 test or masks? “No. Masking, testing and vaccination are the minimum mitigation measures/safety standards to make cruising successful. It’s easy how fast we forget those days of rapid transmission in cruise ships and ships having trouble finding a port to dock,” he said.
“If you get sick early in your trip, it’s going to be a long and miserable,” Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Michigan and a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told MarketWatch. “We’ve come so far in vaccines and treatments. The idea of going on a cruise two years ago? It felt like it would never happen. You couldn’t even imagine getting back to restaurants.”
Malani doesn’t rule out taking a cruise, but advises caution. “Being vaccinated gives high protection against poor outcomes, but it does not protect you against infection,” she said. “On the cruise, you can control how much exposure you have, but if you go with a family you can’t control what they do. If your family isn’t careful and you’re hanging out together, you could get exposed.”
Make sure you have an insurance plan, preferably one that covers being transported to a hospital if necessary. “Get travel insurance, especially if you have pre-existing conditions,” Malani said. “COVID isn’t the only threat to your health. You can eat in outdoor dining areas. It doesn’t mean the risk is zero. If you are in a crowded indoor space in one of their bars, you’re probably going to get exposed to people.”
Is the pandemic over?
Experts believe that the pandemic is not over. Ostrosky advises caution, especially as summer draws to a close: “As much as we want it to be, the pandemic is not anywhere near over. The world is still registering nearly 200,000 daily cases, and the U.S. is still having over 300 people dying every day. Our vaccination and boosting rates are less than ideal, new variants continue to emerge and the proverbial winter is coming.”
Pavia agrees. “I don’t even think President Biden thinks the pandemic is ‘over.’ Notwithstanding his reputation for speaking off the cuff, it is hard to communicate how best to make decisions as the disease slowly and unpredictably changes in the direction of becoming endemic.” He added: “I have not learned how to define the end of a pandemic until you are looking backwards.”
As of early Friday, the coronavirus had killed 1,062,130 Americans , according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. There were 20,686 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. early this week. On Monday, the CDC dropped its country-by-country COVID-19 travel-health notices that it began issuing early in the pandemic.
“The pandemic is at a point where we can move forward and do all the things we think are important,” Malani added. “COVID today is completely different to COVID two years ago.”