Cruise holidays: Why coronavirus spreads so easily on cruise ships

Cruise ship travel sees high numbers of holidaymakers packed into the vessel which, as the coronavirus pandemic showed, can prove disastrous when contagion strikes. New findings have shed further light on how cruises pose risk for “amplified” and “scattered” coronavirus community spread. The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clamped down on cruises early on in the pandemic, with the UK government following suit in March.


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“Outbreaks of infectious diseases can happen on cruise ships because people spend time close together and with travellers from many countries,” explained the CDC.

“Disease can spread between ships when crew members from a ship with an outbreak transfer to other ships.

“Infected people may also travel on cruise ships between countries.

“For these reasons, outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships pose a risk for rapid spread of disease beyond the voyage and into communities across the globe.”

This week, the CDC revealed the extent of contact tracing carried out after around 11,000 passengers and crew members left ships that experienced outbreaks of COVID-19.

Public health officials put in “countless hours” – more than flight contact investigations.

The research confirmed some port officials’ concerns that cruise ships are particularly risky when it comes to community spread.

This is because cruises are often at least a week-long in an environment with increased chances for spread.

There are also a number of port calls during a cruise during which the virus could spread to local communities.

Furthermore, following their time onboard a cruise, passengers proceed to take all modes of transport as they cross the globe back to their home country.

Anyone in the holidaymakers’ path is therefore at risk of catching the virus.

The CDC report revealed that between March 1 and July 10, data showed 2,973 cases of coronavirus or “COVID-like” illnesses emerged on cruise ships, with 34 deaths.


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However, not everyone was quarantined following holidays on infected ships and only later found they had the virus after travelling home.

“Before the ‘No-Sail Order’ in mid-March, passengers travelled back to their homes on their own – both domestically and internationally,” Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY.

“Now the virus is amplified… and scattered,”  Dr Martin Cetron, director for the division of global migration and quarantine for the CDC, also told the US news site.

“It’s quite clear this is a formula for accelerated introduction, transmission and then accelerated spread.”

According to a study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine: “Cruise ship conditions clearly amplified an already highly transmissible disease.”

The UK’s advice for cruises is as follows: “The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.

“Cruise ship travel means staying overnight for at least one night on a sea-going cruise ship with people from multiple households.

“Our advice against cruises applies to international travel on a ship that is exclusively for pleasure or recreation, providing overnight accommodation and other leisure facilities such as entertainment venues or swimming pools.”

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