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New CDC cruise guidance called limited, 'disappointing'

Long-awaited further technical guidance in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's conditional sailing order did not go as far as many had hoped.

'Phase 2A,' issued Friday afternoon of Easter weekend, essentially put into writing what cruise lines and ports already have been told verbally by CDC and covers areas that have been largely implemented, operations sources said.

'Incremental step'

Port Canaveral CEO Capt. John Murray, for one, expressed his disappointment in the guidelines' limited scope.

'For a year now, we have been working closely with our cruise partners and directly with the CDC to find a way forward for the return of cruising from Port Canaveral. Just [Friday] CDC announced vaccinated Americans could safely travel internationally. We’re disappointed that this guidance for the cruise industry appears to be nothing more than an incremental step in a far-reaching process to resume passenger sailings in the U.S. with no definitive or target start date,' Murray said.

Crew testing clarifications

The guidance clarifies some details about crew testing and about procedures for embarking contractors and visitors, revised the color-coding system and COVID-19-like illness definition.

Agreement with port and local health authorities

It addresses general components of a cruise operator's agreement with port and local health authorities related to conducting one or more simulated voyages or restricted passenger voyages under a COVID-19 conditional sailing certificate.

This includes documenting the approval of US port and local health authorities in developing medical care, housing and port components, including a vaccination component.

For example, the agreement must include how many ships, passengers and crew will be able to call, embark or disembark at a port without exceeding the ability of local public health, port authority, hospital and other emergency personnel to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak on board. The CDC said agreement should briefly explain the factors relied upon by all parties in determining these numbers, including the potential for COVID-19 variants, which could undermine vaccine efficacy.

How to cope with 'worst case' scenarios in the event of multiple ships experiencing outbreaks must be addressed in the agreement, and cruise operators must document contractual arrangements with shoreside medical facilities for emergency care, and arrangements for isolaton and quarantine facilities shoreside along with specifics like transportation and security. 

Vaccination recommended

The guidance recommends eligible port personnel, passengers and crew get a COVID-19 vaccine 'when one is available to them.' Agreements between cruise operators and US port and local health authorities are to include a plan and timeline for vaccinating crew prior to resuming operations, and the vaccine must be either US Food and Drug Administration-authorized or one that has received emergency use listing from the World Health Organization.

Cruise ship vaccination coordinator

The guidance also calls for designation of a cruise ship operator vaccine coordinator to oversee implementation and maintenance, and the implementation of processes for vaccinating crew currently on board as well as newly embarking crew.

Port personnel and travelers should be educated, CDC continued, about the importance of getting vaccinated and processes for vaccinating port personnel who are expected to interact with travelers should be implemented.

Next up: Phase 2B — guidance for trial voyages

CDC said it will next issue technical guidance and/or orders for Phases 2B through 4 of resuming passenger cruise operations, no timeframe given. 

Simulated (trial) voyages are in Phase 2B, which first requires seeking permission from CDC to conduct these and, after the sailings, completing a report.

Then follows Phase 3, conditional sailing certification, during which lines apply for a conditional sailing certificate. 

In Phase 4, when lines have received this certificate, they may resume passenger voyages with restrictions such as voyage length and testing requirements.