CDC monitoring COVID-19 found on Carnival, Royal Caribbean cruise ships in Galveston

Independence of the Seas, the first cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean International to sail from Galveston since the pandemic shut down a COVID-stricken cruise industry, returned to port Thursday after a four-day simulated voyage with volunteer passengers.

The trip to test COVID-19 protocols was a bid to gain approval for more unvaccinated passengers than would otherwise be allowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under CDC rules, cruise operators can restart by ensuring 95 percent of crew and passengers are vaccinated, or by proving they can sail without an outbreak.

Both options may become more challenging than cruise lines expected as the delta variant drives a resurgent pandemic with breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. Galveston County public health officials on Friday reported 415 new cases, the highest-ever in one day, with 21-to-30 year olds being the most commonly infected.

According to the CDC, as of Thursday all three Galveston-based cruise ships, including Independence of the Seas and two Carnival ships offering vaccinated cruises, are reporting positive COVID-19 test results.

The CDC is investigating Carnival Vista, a 3,940-passenger ship whose July 3 excursion marked the return of cruises to Galveston, after it triggered the threshold of 1 crew and 3 passenger cases onboard. The agency recently investigated and is now monitoring sister ship Carnival Breeze, and is also monitoring Independence of the Seas.

A Carnival Cruise Line spokesperson on Wednesday confirmed a “small number” of people have tested positive for COVID-19 during a vaccinated cruise onboard the Vista. Those who tested positive have been isolated and contact traced, said the spokesperson, who did not immediately confirm the number of cases.

Carnival, which hopes to maintain the CDC’s required vaccination levels in order to sail without restrictive public health measures, has allowed vaccinated passengers to go maskless onboard. But state laws in Texas and Florida that ban businesses from demanding proof of vaccination led Carnival to require the small number of unvaccinated passengers onboard to pay health fees and obtain travel insurance.

In response to the Carnival Vista cases, the cruise line is now requiring masks in some indoor areas, the spokesperson said.

Royal Caribbean International, Galveston’s other year-round cruise line, has charted a different path as it navigates CDC rules and customer demand. The cruise line said it opted for test voyages so it could accommodate more families with children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated.

The Independence of the Seas, back in Galveston, is booked for its first revenue cruise on Aug. 15. But despite its name, whether the ship can sail will depend on how many cases the CDC discovers among crew and volunteer passengers in the week after its test cruise.

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