Five Ways Cruise Lines can Secure a Safe Return to Service
As the cruise industry begins to resume sailing, cruise lines are now faced with an increasing demand to develop advanced cruise ship safety protocols. A key component to the success of these is found in introducing new crew regulations to ensure onboard safety for all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the largest crisis faced by the cruise industry to date, both in size and consequences. Eighteen months into the pandemic, and with stricter requirements for resuming business than other hospitality sectors, the gradual resumption of cruise operations is finally underway.
In this article, VIKAND looks at some of the key recommendations for vessel operators to consider. These are based on recent scientific studies regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its emerging variants.
1. COVID-19 Vaccinations
Vaccines are a game changer. Full vaccination provides over 80% efficacy against hospitalization, even in face of the Delta variant. This has been proven in recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Oxford University. Vaccines, including Pfizer BioNtech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna, all reduce the risk of death by over 85% after two doses, regardless of the variant. This, combined with the fact that those vaccinated are less likely to become infected in the first place, supports having a full vaccination policy requirement for passengers and crew as a primary strategy for any cruise line resuming operations.
When considering what type of vaccination to provide your crew, present-day evidence suggests that mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, are more effective in all areas than the viral vector types like the J&J/ Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.
2. Health Screening & Testing
While vaccines reduce the health complications associated with COVID-19, they don’t offer full immunity to the disease. Breakthrough cases – when a person who has been fully vaccinated becomes infected – are being reported. Additionally, recent CDC evidence has suggested that the Delta variant is thought to be up to 60% more transmissible than the original version of the virus. Pre-embarkation health screening and testing should remain a key component in COVID-19 mitigation plans, regardless of an individual’s vaccination or recovery status.
Crew members should be routinely tested for SARS-CoV-2 – at least every 14 days if fully vaccinated. Those with increased exposure risks, such as restaurant staff or housekeeping personnel, should be tested with increased frequency.
3. Face Mask Policies
Vaccinated people are more likely to experience symptoms after catching the Delta variant in comparison to earlier forms of the virus, with similar viral loads being noted in both groups. Consequently, maintaining face mask requirements for all indoor public areas on board is still considered a prudent strategy. This is a recommended part of a vessel operators comprehensive, multi-layered approach to reducing the associated risks of COVID-19 transmission, especially with the prevalence of new, more aggressive variants.
Changes to standard operating procedures can help to minimize exposure risks. For example, not permitting smoking and drinking in casino areas will better protect crew members working in these locations. In the restaurants and bars on board where removing face coverings is unavoidable, cruise lines should evaluate upgrading standard medical masks for their crew to N95/FFP2 masks (or higher) during service hours.
4. Case Detection and Management
When possible or confirmed cases of COVID-19 are discovered on board, immediate isolation in pre-designated cabins is crucial. This, along with rapidly identifying and quarantining close contacts, is paramount in preventing further spread of the virus. Most of the current regulatory guidance was written with the Alpha variant in mind. Therefore, with the emergence of more transmissible variants, cruise lines should regularly reassess their protocols and definitions regarding close contacts.
Streamlining the contact tracing process can be achieved by evaluating the use of technologies, for example, wearable bands. Other initiatives, such as pre-assigned seating in restaurants, can also be used. Implementing cohorting strategies in passenger and crew populations can further mitigate transmission and exposure risks. Overall, this can potentially reduce the number of individuals needing to quarantine following a COVID-19 case.
5. Crew Training
As part of returning to service, cruise lines have needed to prepare comprehensive COVID-19 contingency plans to meet competent health authorities’ requirements. To translate policies from paper to on board operations, these procedures should be clear and concise. This will ensure that crew members know what to do, and when to do it.
The importance of crew training in the application of your company’s COVID-19 control and response measures should not be understated. Even the best written policies will not be effective if the crew are not properly trained. This includes explaining the “why” behind the policy prerequisites.
The cruise industry has the right to resume its operations. However, this must be done with collective responsibility, coordinated plans, comprehensive health protocols, and transparency. There isn’t one solution to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 transmission on board. Cruise lines need to implement a multi-layered approach to meet the challenges of the current crisis, providing a healthier and safer environment for their guests, crew, and the communities they visit.
VIKAND is sponsoring the Health and Hygiene Zone at Cruise Ship Hospitality Expo. Find out all about the next Cruise Ship Hospitality Expo event here.