Cruise ship travel in the era of COVID-19: A summary of outbreaks and a model of public health interventions.


Cruise travel contributed to SARS-CoV-2 transmission when there were relatively few cases in the United States. By March 14, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a No Sail Order suspending U.S. cruise operations; the last U.S. passenger ship docked on April 16.

We analyzed SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks on cruises in U.S. waters or carrying U.S. citizens and used regression models to compare voyage characteristics. We used compartmental models to simulate the potential impact of four interventions (screening for COVID-19 symptoms; viral testing on two days and isolation of positive persons; reduction of passengers by 40%, crew by 20%, and port visits to one) for 7-day and 14-day voyages.

SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks on cruises were common during January-April 2020. Despite all interventions modeled, cruise travel still poses a significant SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk.

During January 19-April 16, 2020, 89 voyages on 70 ships had known SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks; 16 ships had recurrent outbreaks. There were 1,669 RT-PCR-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections and 29 confirmed deaths. Longer voyages were associated with more cases (adjusted incidence rate ratio, 1.10, 95% CI: 1.03-1.17, p < 0.0001). Mathematical models showed that 7-day voyages had about 70% fewer cases than 14-day voyages. On 7-day voyages, the most effective interventions were reducing the number of individuals onboard (43-49% reduction in total infections) and testing passengers and crew (42-43% reduction in total infections). All four interventions reduced transmission by 80%, but no single intervention or combination eliminated transmission. Results were similar for 14-day voyages.

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