Cruise ship disembarks in New Orleans as 17 vaccinated passengers test positive for COVID-19

AP Photo/LM Otero

The Norwegian Breakaway docked in New Orleans on Sunday. The cruise ship, a part of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet, disembarked with at least seventeen passengers who tested positive for COVID-19, including one suspected of having the Omicron variant. All are vaccinated.

The Louisiana Department of Health said late Sunday that the person with a probable case of the Omicron variant is a crew member. To keep this announcement in perspective, the seventeen cases are being described as “a handful” of cases because more than 3,200 people were on board the ship. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy because the coronavirus spreads so quickly, and the Omicron variant does, too. Fortunately, none of the passengers who tested positive were experiencing any symptoms at the time of disembarkment.

The Norwegian Breakaway arrived in the city on Sunday after departing from New Orleans on November 28 and making stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico over the past week.

Norwegian Cruise Line issued a statement on Saturday confirming a “handful of COVID-19 cases among guests and crew.” The company said all of the identified cases involved people without symptoms of the illness.

As it so happens, the Omicron variant was discovered for the first time in Louisiana on Sunday, too. It was a separate case than from the cruise passengers.

All passengers and crew are required to be vaccinated before departure on a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise. In fact, it is considered to be one of the most stringent of cruise lines on COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Norwegian Cruise Line has one of the most stringent immunization policies in the industry, requiring that all passengers, including children, and crew members take antigen tests and be fully vaccinated before boarding. Children who are not eligible for a vaccine are prohibited from traveling.

At the beginning of the pandemic, cruise ships were superspreaders and ordered to shut down pretty quickly. Even after vaccines became available, cruises were at the end of the line to win approval to return to business. The industry lost billions of dollars in revenue each month. By the summer, the cruise industry was rebounding and COVID-19 protocols were in place. Reports of passengers departing with negative test results only to disembark with positive test results will likely start slowing down the comeback momentum. The question will be how likely travel customers are willing to chance exposure to the virus. Many cruises tend to have senior citizens as passengers who are in the high-risk category.

Perhaps the passengers picked up the virus after one of the stops in Belize, Honduras, or Mexico. The Louisiana Department of Health worked with the cruise line and state and local officials to contain the outbreak. Passengers were given take-home rapid tests as they left the ship.

“We are testing all individuals on Norwegian Breakaway prior to disembarkation, as well as providing post-exposure and quarantine public health guidance by the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” the company’s said in a Saturday statement. “Any guests who have tested positive for COVID-19 will travel by personal vehicle to their personal residence or self-isolate in accommodations provided by the company.”

Some passengers told a local news station that they weren’t even aware of other passengers testing positive for the virus. They found out when reporters asked about it. Others say they were told.

“We didn’t hear of this until we kind of heard you talking a second ago,” said Don Canole, a passenger from North Carolina. “It would have been nice to have known. We would have taken maybe a few more precautions.”

Better communication is something the cruise lines will have to work on. This, however, is the new normal. The virus is not going to fade away, certainly not any time in the near future. We have to learn to live with it and that includes how we travel. Cruising is a completely voluntary decision made for vacation relaxation and fun. Cruise ships are notorious for spreading viruses. We have all heard the stories of people falling ill during a cruise with a stomach virus or some such malady. COVID-19 is now on that list. The vaccination requirements may put travelers at ease but there are breakthrough cases of the coronavirus affecting many vaccinated people. With thousands of passengers on a cruise ship, some are bound to leave without the virus and come home with it. Short of shutting down the industry again, there is little more that the cruise lines can do. The decision to take the risk falls on the passengers.