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With positivity rate lower at sea than in US, CLIA 'perplexed' over CDC warning against cruising

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its cruise travel warning to Level 4, the highest, and advised Americans against cruising, regardless of their vaccination status.

CDC issued the change Thursday, citing increased COVID-19 cases among passengers and crew since the Omicron variant was identified.

Cruise Lines International Association called the heightened warning 'particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population on board — far fewer than on land — and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources on board or onshore.'

91 of 110 ships now 'yellow' status

The number of cruise ships meeting the case threshold for CDC investigation has increased, with most ships now in 'yellow' status — 91 out of the 110 ships operating under the conditional sailing order. The remaining ships are green (no reported cases) or orange (reported cases are below the level of CDC investigation; those three ships are carrying crew only).

Under the CDC’s color-coded system, a cruise ship may be determined to be 'yellow' if a threshold of 0.1% or more passengers — that is, seven out of 6,500 — have tested positive in the last seven days, or if even just one crew member tests positive.

Vaccination rate on US-based ships 95%-plus

CLIA said vaccination rates on cruise ships (under the CDC jurisdiction) are upwards of 95%, significantly higher than the overall US population's rate, which is hovering at 62%. In the US alone, the cruise industry administers nearly 10m tests per week, 21 times the rate of testing in the US.

The association stated cruise ships offer a 'highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel' and said many of its members have instituted additional measures in response to Omicron. These include strengthening testing, masking and other requirements, as well as encouraging boosters for those eligible.

Royal Caribbean Omicron update

Also on Thursday, Royal Caribbean Group issued an Omicron update addressing increased positive cases, some service disruptions, a decline in near-term bookings and higher cancellations near-term.

However, the company noted its positivity rate remains relatively low.

'Omicron is having a big short-term impact on everyone, but many observers see this as a major step towards COVID-19 becoming endemic rather than epidemic,' said Richard Fain, chairman & CEO. 'We don't like to see even one case, but our experience is a fraction of the comparable statistics of virtually any other comparable location or industry.

'Few businesses are subject to such intense scrutiny, regulation and disclosure requirements by so many authorities, and we welcome that scrutiny because of our commitment to safety,' he continued. 'We intend to maintain our goal of delivering the safest vacation on land or sea and will constantly adjust our procedures to accomplish this even in the face of Omicron's amazing transmissibility.'

Case count spiked but severity significantly milder

Royal Caribbean Group's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson added: 'Our case count has spiked, but the level of severity is significantly milder. We will remain nimble and in constant contact with health authorities. For example, even before Omicron, we have been giving all our crew members booster shots as they became eligible.'

Royal Caribbean didn't specify recent numbers but said since cruising restarted in the US in June, it has carried 1.1m passengers with 1,745 people testing positive — a rate of 0.02%.

'Furthermore, the vast majority of those cases had no symptoms or only mild symptoms, with only 41 people needing hospitalization,' the company said. 'None of the Omicron cases have been severe or needed to be taken to a hospital. These figures are a result of almost everyone on board having been vaccinated and having a negative test before boarding.'

16 destinations calls out of 331 impacted

Royal Caribbean noted travel disruptions are impacting 'on-board service capabilities' as well as 'service disruptions at selected destinations' which have caused the cancellation or significantly modified 16 destination calls out of 331.

The company expects these disruptions to 'continue in the near term and then decline as the world adjusts to the current trends.'

Bookings impact lesser than with Delta

Following what Royal Caribbean called a 'very strong cyber weekend, the company experienced a decline in bookings and increased cancellations for near-term sailings but to a lesser degree than that experienced with the Delta variant. Load factors for sailings in the first half of 2022 remain below historical levels, as expected. However, sailings for the second half of 2022 continue to be booked within historical ranges, at higher prices with and without future cruise credits, with strong demand from the critical US market.'

Cruise stocks

Not surprisingly cruise shares traded down, with RCL off 1.1% at $77.35, Carnival Corp. ending the day 1.2% lower at $20.53 and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings off nearly 2.6% at $21.02.