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And just like that: CDC's COVID-19 program for cruise ships has ended

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 program for cruise ships is no longer in effect, the agency announced today.

It seemed like an abrupt ending following a long and sometimes controversial oversight.

Protocols not likely to go away

However, this doesn't necessarily mean an end to cruise lines' own COVID-19 protocols. Industry sources said it's unlikely lines will stop their voluntary practices that have been so successful at protecting passengers, crew and communities visited. 

And the CDC will still be involved with recommendations. 

Color-coded system is retired

New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days, the CDC said Monday. But the agency's color-coded status for cruise ships is going away, and that web page is being retired. 

CDC explained this color-coded system depended upon each cruise line having the same COVID-19 screening testing standards, which may now vary among lines. 

Testing recommendations/reporting to continue

CDC said it will continue to provide testing recommendations for cruise ship operators to follow, and cruise ships will continue to report COVID-19 cases to the agency.

In a statement, CDC said it has 'worked closely with the cruise industry, state, territorial and local health authorities, and federal and seaport partners to provide a safer and healthier environment for cruise passengers and crew. Cruise ships have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs.'

The statement continued: 'Additionally, cruise travelers have access to recommendations that allow them to make informed decisions about cruise ship travel. While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers and communities going forward.'

CLIA welcomes the change

Cruise Lines International Association welcomed the decision to end the longstanding program in favor of a set of guidelines.

'We look forward to reviewing the details, which we understand will be posted on the CDC website in the coming days,' CLIA said in a statement.

It continued: 'This is an important step forward in the CDC aligning the guidelines for cruise with those it has established for other travel, hospitality and entertainment sectors.'

'A testament to comprehensive and robust protocols'

The sunsetting effective today is a 'testament to the effectiveness of the industry’s comprehensive and robust protocols,' CLIA continued, asserting that 'cruising has become one of the safest forms of travel and among the most successful industries in mitigating the spread and severity of COVID-19, resulting in few passengers or crew becoming seriously ill or requiring hospitalization compared to hospital statistics for landside patients.'

Cruise operators contacted by Seatrade Cruise News generally referred to the CLIA statement and said they're reviewing the news.

'We haven't made any decision if we're going to change anything — if we make any changes at all,' one company's spokesperson said. 

Vaccination and testing still advised

CDC continues urging travelers to be up to date with their vaccines before cruising and said if their line doesn't have a testing requirement, passengers should get tested as close to the time of cruise departure as possible — no more than three days before their trip. Passengers should also get tested three to five days after their cruise. 

For those who've recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days, testing is not generally recommended unless there are symptoms. CDC explained people can continue to test positive for up to 90 days and not be infectious to others. The agency advised travelers to check with their line, including if they need to provide a copy of a positive test result and a letter from their healthcare provider documenting their recovery.