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CDC unveils new voluntary COVID-19 program for cruise ships

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With the conditional sailing order expiring Jan. 15, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled a new voluntary COVID-19 program for cruise ships.

This includes guidance for ships to continue to operate in a way that is healthier and safer for crew, passengers and communities. Unlike the CSO, it is voluntary. Lines are asked to opt in by Jan. 21.

If they do so, they'll have to follow all the CDC recommendations and guidance, and their ships will continue to receive a color status.

If lines opt out, their ships will be listed as 'gray' on the CDC's website, meaning the agency has neither reviewed nor confirmed their health and safety protocols. These 'gray' ships will be subject to other CDC orders and regulations to the same extent as other vessels subject to US jurisdiction. One exception: US-flag ships that don't follow this program will not be listed as 'gray.'

Lines likely to opt in

Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings had no immediate comment, however multiple cruise industry sources told Seatrade Cruise News they believe all lines will opt in.

'Following these rules just makes good business sense, to keep instilling confidence in the sailing public that cruising is safe,' an industry operations expert said.

Lines are exceeding compliance

Public notices by various operators also suggest controls that go above and beyond requirements will continue, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line's determination to continue antigen testing of all passengers at embarkation through February

The new voluntary program — and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky's Senate testimony on Tuesday — indicate public health officials feel confident the cruise industry's adherence to COVID prevention and mitigation measures, even amid a rise in cases due to the Omicron variant. 

'... the fact the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding the compliance with the sail order without the order even necessarily needing to be in place is a real testimony to how well that has worked ...' Walensky said.

Investigation threshold goes up

The new program's provisions are very similar to the existing CSO, with some exceptions. For example, the threshold for CDC investigation will go from 0.1% passenger cases or one or more crew cases to 0.3% of passengers and/or crew. This will be 'yellow' or 'orange' under the color-coded system, which is being updated.

'Red' status criteria are also being updated.

Testing continues

Testing requirements will continue, and ships with at least 95% of fully vaccinated crew and passengers may continue to reduce or eliminate certain public health measures onboard, such as mask use and physical distancing.

Masks

The CDC's requirement that people wear masks at transportation hubs like seaports and US ports of entry still applies whether lines opt in or opt out. And the agency continues to recommend people wear a mask inside ships when outside of their cabins and in crowded outdoor settings.

Self-service food will begin to be allowed

Self-service beverage stations will continue to be allowed regardless of onboard vaccination status. Self-service food operations will begin to be allowed.

Recommendations for cleaning and disinfection will continue to align with CDC guidance. Negative air pressure for quarantine cabins will not be required — these cabins must still be in a separate HVAC zone. Isolation cabins must still have negative air pressure.

Port agreements

Port agreements between US port and local health authorities will still be needed. Cruise lines must continue to identify medical and housing facilities and have port and local health authorities sign these agreements. However, operators won't need to present CDC with signed contracts. The agency said it will evaluate this program component but foresees the continued need for lines to pre-identify medical and housing facilities. These could be pre-identified through an emergency response plan, rather than through signed port agreements.

No simulated voyages

CDC will eliminate the simulated voyage requirement and the conditional sailing certificate application process.

Inspections

CDC will continue to conduct routine unannounced inspections and announced outbreak investigations.

The agency said web pages are expected to be updated with the new program details on or around Jan. 14. 

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