Royal Caribbean postpones cruise after eight vaccinated crew test positive for COVID

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The ship, the Odyssey of the Seas, seems to be snakebit. It was initially supposed to sail from Haifa, Israel, on June 2 but that trip was canceled due to “unrest” in the region. They decided to try again on July 3, disembarking from Port Everglades.

That’s off now too due to a bunch of positive tests for COVID among the crew, all of whom had been vaccinated.

But not yet fully vaccinated, do note. Pay attention to the timeline:

“During routine testing, eight crew members received a positive test result for Covid-19,” company CEO Michael Bayley said in a statement. “All 1,400 crew onboard Odyssey of the Seas were vaccinated on June 4th and will be considered fully vaccinated on June 18.”

Out of the eight cases, six people were asymptomatic and two had mild symptoms, he said. All who tested positive for Covid-19, as well as hundreds of other crew members, are under quarantine and being monitored by a medical team.

Odyssey of the Seas’ inaugural sailing, originally scheduled for July 3, is now set for July 31.

The only way to go from getting a shot to being fully vaccinated in the span of two weeks is if you’ve had Johnson & Johnson, which is less effective at preventing infection — at least initially — than the mRNA vaccines are. Why didn’t Royal Caribbean dose them up with Pfizer and Moderna instead?

I’m guessing they were in a rush. Pfizer is a five-week course from the first shot to full vaccination while Moderna is a six-week course. Dosing out a first shot to the entire crew on June 4 would have made it impossible for everyone to be fully protected by the time they set sail on July 3. So they took advantage of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose regimen to speed things up. And, probably, to make things logistically simpler since they didn’t need to worry about second appointments for 1,400 people.

Eight vaccinated crew members sounds like a lot but it’s less than one percent of a population of 1,400 — 0.6 percent, to be exact. (If we’re measuring by symptomatic cases instead of total cases, it’s 0.1 percent.) Note too that the eight positive tests came before the two-week post-vax period had elapsed, meaning that the eight weren’t fully protected yet. And there’s evidence out there that the immune response from J&J’s shot continues to increase as time passes after the injection, meaning that crew members should be even more protected from infection on July 3 than they are now.

Which makes you wonder why Royal Caribbean bothered postponing the cruise until the 31st. Probably it’s a PR ploy more than a meaningful safety protocol: They’re desperate to show the public that they’re taking COVID seriously and doing everything they can to protect passengers from infection. If that means postponing a cruise by four weeks out of an abundance of caution to prove that they mean business, that’s what they’ll do. I’ll be surprised if they’re doing the same thing six months from now, after Americans have gotten more comfortable with taking cruises again.

Say, wasn’t there an outbreak on another cruise recently? There was. That was the Celebrity Millennium, the “test” cruise that Royal Caribbean arranged to see how well its new COVID protocols worked. There were splashy headlines, including here, when two passengers tested positive for COVID despite the fact that everyone onboard had been vaccinated *and* had been required to show proof of a negative test in the days before boarding. Suspense followed: Would other passengers test positive, proving that outbreaks even among the fully vaccinated are possible? Would anyone get sick enough aboard to need hospital care? If they did, what would that mean for the future of cruises?

The Celebrity Millennium cruise is now over. Those were the only two infections. And the passengers took it in stride:

The next step was contact tracing; the pair were interviewed to find out where they had been spending their time, and Celebrity staff looked over closed-circuit footage onboard to identify people who had spent more than 15 minutes with them in a proximity of less than 6 feet. (Social distancing has been in play during our entire cruise. Venues like restaurants and bars have fewer tables, and the theater, fitness center and casino all have closed down some seating/equipment to encourage distancing.)

Also, people who shared buses on excursions with the two passengers who tested positive were isolated until their tests could be completed and results were in…

The thing is, the announcement from the captain that two people tested positive didn’t send waves of panic through the passengers onboard. It didn’t shut down the cruise activities, or even change plans for most people.

Good news inasmuch as it suggests that the new COVID protocols are effective, at least when a ship is at one-third capacity (as the Celebrity Millennium was) and everyone aboard has been immunized. What happens when it’s at full capacity? More importantly, what happens when unvaccinated people are among the passengers, as Ron DeSantis has all but required by battling the CDC in court on safety rules?

The greatest risk isn’t that the unvaccinated will be infected onboard by other passengers, it’s that they’ll pick something up after they dock in a port abroad and disembark to spend some time mingling with the locals. Read this op-ed by an entertainer who moved to Florida because it was easier to work there during the pandemic but who’s now begging DeSantis to let up in his crusade to block cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination. We want everyone on board to relax and not worry about an outbreak, she writes, but that can’t be done with the unvaccinated at risk. Besides, she says, crew members and entertainers routinely have to meet certain health standards to prove themselves seaworthy before being hired on for a cruise. If that’s not “discriminatory” or a violation of their “privacy,” why is proof of vaccination?