Wear the Damn Mask!

And I thought I was finished writing about cruising for awhile. A small luxury cruise company with a “fleet” of just two mega-yachts has come perilously close to screwing the entire multi-billion dollar cruise industry. This is not a David and Goliath story…more like Dumb and Dumber with both parts played by the same cruise company. This story is still developing and the impact on the cruise industry is not yet known. Fingers crossed it has no impact…we should be so lucky. The situation came about because a niche cruise line virtually unknown to most of the U.S. cruising public did something incredibly stupid. Of all the hard things associated with reducing the risk of COVID-19, they failed to do the easiest. They didn’t wear the damn mask.

Sea Dream 1, one of two mega-yachts operated by Sea Dream Yacht Club, was in the middle of a Caribbean cruise itinerary earlier this week when a single passenger tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting to the ship’s staff with COVID-like symptoms. To date a total of six passengers on the same cruise aboard Sea Dream 1 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Sea Dream 1 is a 36-year old ship classed as a mega-yacht with a capacity of 110 passengers and a crew of up to 89 people. They were sailing a Caribbean itinerary at a significantly reduced capacity with just 53 passengers and 66 crew members aboard. Sea Dream Yacht Club has been sailing in Europe for several months now trouble free…no cases of COVID-19 on any of those sailings. What went wrong on this particular Caribbean cruise? I’ll break it down for you:

1. Sea Dream 1 was not sailing under the provisions of the CDC’s November 1st conditional return to sailing order. The itinerary the ship sailed was roundtrip Barbados, and none of the port calls were to U.S. ports, which means the ship operated outside the CDC’s jurisdiction throughout its voyage and was not subject to any of the CDC’s restrictions.

2. Even my almost three-year old granddaughter wears a mask when outside of her bubble in public, but for some inexplicable reason Sea Dream Yacht Club did not require masks to be worn by either passengers or crew members once onboard the ship. PPE was used pier side by the crew when checking passengers in for embarkation, but masks were not required once onboard and by all reports they weren’t worn. Not surprisingly, Sea Dream has since changed their mask policy. They now require all passengers and crew to wear masks in public areas throughout the voyage. It’s called shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped.

3. All passengers on Sea Dream cruises are required to present certification of a negative COVID-19 test taken several days prior to boarding and to undergo testing again on the day of boarding. They are further required to undergo temperature screening pier side as well as recent medical history questioning. It would appear that Sea Dream placed an over reliance on COVID-19 testing for their COVID-19 risk mitigation which gave them a false sense of security. That was one of the specific risks the CDC warned cruise lines about following resumption of cruising in Europe, and even though Sea Dream wasn’t operating within the jurisdiction of the CDC and therefore not subject to their regulations, their failure to take note of the CDC’s warning is beyond comprehension.

4. Sea Dream’s approach to COVID-19 risk mitigation and management failed to follow the multi-step COVID-19 risk mitigation and management steps required by the CDC, and the even more stringent 74 recommendations several major cruise lines have voluntarily adopted. These recommendations were presented in an independent panel of experts’ report, “Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel,” jointly commissioned by the Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Holdings, Ltd. Sea Dream focused on some of the physical aspects of COVID-19 risk mitigation, but failed to address human factors such as wearing masks.

5. Sea Dream’s approach to disinfecting and sterilizing rooms and surfaces seems to me to be about as good as it gets. They use hand carried electrostatic foggers that expel a disinfecting solution for surfaces such as tables and chairs, and a large ultrasound sub-micron fog dropper for large area disinfection. Individual staterooms are sanitized once daily using tabletop UVC lamps for 15 minutes during turndown service (passenger access to cabins is blocked during this time for safety reasons). High touch areas such as high use cabin surfaces, elevator control panels, handrails and more, are wiped down by hand with disinfecting solution.

6. The cruise line has reported that none of the passengers on this cruise came into contact with any locals on the three port calls the ship made. I wish I could believe that statement. There have already been several reports of passengers on Europe based cruises straying from the organized shore excursion and striking out on their own. In those cases the offending passengers were left pierside when the ship set sail, not even being allowed to reboard to pack their bags. While that isn’t necessarily the cause of the virus getting aboard the Sea Dream 1, the absence of face mask use makes port calls suspect.

7. I didn’t find any specific information on the air distribution system onboard but find it highly unlikely to contain any HEPA filtration. Even the largest of cruise ships haven’t used HEPA filtration, and that alone would not have eliminated the risk of COVID-19. It would represent an additional measure of protection, and the use of HEPA filters is a step the major cruise lines are considering when their ships resume sailing.

8. Following the initial case of a preliminary positive COVID-19 test in a passenger presenting with COVID-19 like symptoms, the cruise ship announced that passengers and crew were confined to their cabins while the entire ship was retested. A wise move but far short of the COVID-19 quarantine protocols that have been effectively employed by other cruise lines. The cruise industry experience early in the pandemic demonstrated that confining passengers to their cabins alone is not an effective quarantine protocol against the spread of COVID. To be truly effective, actual isolation protocols needed to have been implemented for those passengers testing positive, with a separate portion of the ship blocked off for use as an isolation ward. Further protocols need to be observed to ensure crew members are not a vector for the virus to jump other isolation and quarantine practices. Whether the additional positive cases of COVID-19 on this ship resulted from onboard spread, or represent prior spread of the virus for example among a family group traveling together with relaxed social distancing practices is unclear based on information reported by the media.

I hope that all infected passengers recover without complication, and that the outbreak is limited to just the six cases already reported. This was an unfortunate and likely preventable incident. My hope is that it stays just that and doesn’t become something the CDC uses to further restrict major cruise lines from resuming operations from and to U.S. ports, or that it doesn’t become fodder for scare tactics used by either the CDC or the media to discourage people from taking a cruise. The major cruise lines that service the U.S. cruise market are large companies vested in providing an enjoyable yet safe product for the public. Smaller niche operators have far less at stake and particularly when operating outside the jurisdiction of the CDC, virtually no regulatory oversight to hold them accountable. Whether or not we choose to cruise is an individual decision. Hopefully, even in light of this incident, it stays that way.

As Larry Hogan, Maryland’s widely respected Governor recently told residents, wear the damn mask.

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