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Royal Caribbean ship docks at Miami with 48 cases of COVID, cruise line says

The seven-night voyage was leaving from Miami and visiting St. Maarten; St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands; and CocoCay, the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas.
Passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19 after cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas ship.
Passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19 after cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas ship. [ Miami Herald ]
Published Dec. 20, 2021

Forty-eight passengers and crew members tested positive for COVID-19 on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas ship, which docked at PortMiami on Saturday, the cruise company said.

The four dozen cases on the massive cruise ship, where vaccination was required for the vast majority of passengers 12 and over, are prompting worries and speculation that cruising may see a repeat of the disastrous spread of COVID-19 that occurred at the onset of the pandemic — and the subsequent shutdown of the industry for more than a year.

In a statement on Sunday, Miami-based Royal Caribbean said that each person who tested positive immediately went into quarantine. Six people who tested positive disembarked the ship mid-voyage and were transported home

The ship that pulled into Miami the day before left port on Dec. 11 with 6,091 passengers and crew on board, 95 percent of whom were fully vaccinated. Of the 48 who tested positive for Covid-19, 98 percent were fully vaccinated.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement that the passengers who tested positive were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. However, passengers noted that was not the case.

James Johnson and Connor O’Dell, an engaged couple who live in Orlando, were on Symphony of the Seas with a group of 12 family members. All members of their party were fully vaccinated. Johnson’s aunt started feeling very ill with a sore throat and an earache and later developed a strong cough. After testing positive for COVID-19, Johnson said she only received an oxygen and temperature check and were told that medical staff was too overwhelmed to monitor her more closely.

The couple and the rest of their party, who had been in close contact with Johnson’s aunt and had gone to the ship’s crowded night club, said that they received conflicting information from Royal Caribbean about whether they needed to quarantine and that initially they would not give them coronavirus tests.

“We did our research and read their COVID policies, on their site they say they have excellent testing capabilities, that’s why we thought it was safe to go,” Johnson continued. “They failed their own safety standards.”

“I bought into the safety aspect,” added O’Dell, whose dad also tested positive and is now getting regeneron anti-body therapy at his home in Tampa. “I was reading the literature they have online and thought, ‘How much safer can you get?’ Everyone’s vaccinated and has to get tested. And then you get on board and find yourself in the middle of the outbreak.”

The voyage that resulted in 48 positive cases of COVID-19 was a seven-night Caribbean itinerary leaving from Miami and visiting St. Maarten; St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands; and CocoCay, the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas.

The new cases come as the omicron variant is quickly spreading across the United States, potentially throwing a wrench in holiday travel plans. Royal Caribbean said that Symphony of Sea’s future trips would not be affected. The ship is has already left Miami for a new trip to Mexico, according to vesselfinder.com.

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Royal Caribbean requires that all passengers on the Symphony of the Seas who are 12 or older be fully vaccinated. All passengers must take a COVID test before boarding. Crew members are required to be fully vaccinated and are tested weekly.

While the breakthrough cases may be a setback for the cruise industry, which only began restarting over the past six months, it’s still too soon to know the damage that omicron will do. The variant was only identified about a month ago in South Africa and scientist are still searching for answers about how contagious and severe it is, and how it effects vaccinated people.

Cruise industry leaders say that being on a cruise ship is the safest kind of vacation travelers can take at the moment because of the controlled environment where they can mandate vaccines. But breakthrough infections have the potential to put the industry in a bad spot again.

Cruises were COVID-19 hot spots at the onset of the pandemic, causing the industry to completely shut down for over a year. Many cruise lines had to take on massive debts while they were unable to make any revenue for the better part of a year and a half.

Julia Simpson, the president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, a global tourism industry body, said she hopes that the tourism sector can continue operating through the holidays for now, warning of the economic impact of shutting down travel again. The U.S. lost 5.5 million tourism-sector jobs during the pandemic, a WTTC economic impact study found.

“The WTTC believes that fully vaccinated travelers, during this precious time to see family and friends, should be able to travel freely,” she said. “It’s been proven that closing borders does not decrease the spread. If they close borders for the holiday season, it will be a serious blow to the travel and tourism sector.”

- Anna Jean Kaiser

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

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