Just five days in to the first cruise in the Caribbean in seven months, two passengers aboard the Celebrity Millennium ship tested positive for COVID-19.
Like almost all passengers aboard, the cabin-mates were vaccinated and reportedly asymptomatic.
Millennium passenger Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, said the captain’s public announcement about the cases was received calmly, without the panic of the early pandemic days.
The ship left from St. Maarten on June 5 for a seven-night cruise visiting Aruba, Curacao and Barbados, carrying around 600 passengers and 700 crew members. Celebrity Cruises, owned by Royal Caribbean Group, required all crew and passengers 16 years old or older to be vaccinated against COVID-19, likely preventing the virus from spreading further on board.
The two infected passengers, who the cruise company said are asymptomatic and shared a cabin, tested positive Thursday when the ship staff began conducting antigen tests required to leave the ship when it returns to St. Maarten on Saturday. Antigen testing of all passengers is expected to be completed on Friday, McDaniel said.
Journalist Ashley Kosciolek, on board the ship reporting for The Points Guy, attended a shore excursion in Barbados with the passengers who tested positive. She said the company notified her of her close contact with the infected passengers and asked her to remain in her cabin Thursday until her test result came back.
Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Group, said Celebrity is providing private transportation home for the two passengers who tested positive on the cruise. He said all close contacts from the passengers’ shore excursions have tested negative.
In her view, McDaniel said, the company responded well. “The reality is that breakthrough cases happen on land and they are going to happen at sea, so it’s important to understand how they are going to respond to those cases,” she said. “I’m confident it’s being handled correctly.”
Dr. Michael Callahan, director of the Clinical Translation, Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who helped treat and evacuate sick passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships last year, said the vaccination requirements like the one Celebrity has are essential to preventing deadly ship outbreaks like the ones cruise ships experienced last year.
“This is the ultimate test for a vaccine, putting vulnerable people in environments that so favor transmission and mix them from all over the world,” he said. “It prevents large numbers of infected cases and severe illness.”
All passengers had to provide proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arriving in St. Maarten for the cruise, and masks on board are optional for passengers. Only a small number of children on board are unvaccinated.
The Celebrity Millennium cruise was the industry’s first in the Caribbean since November, when seven passengers and two crew members tested positive for COVID-10 aboard the SeaDream 1 cruise ship. The infections forced the company to cancel its cruises for the rest of 2020; its website is offering Caribbean cruises beginning in November 2021.
Before the June 5 Millennium cruise, public health experts in the Caribbean expressed concern about cruise ships’ potential to bring COVID-19 to countries where vaccination rates are still very low, infections are high and testing and hospital capacity are limited.
Callahan said COVID-19 variants spreading among the region’s unvaccinated population is a growing concern.
“Infected people heading to these ports on cruises is bad news for these Caribbean countries,” he said. “You’d rather have 1,000 cases in Houston than one case on a cruise ship visiting multiple ports of call exposing vulnerable populations.”
Another Celebrity ship, the Celebrity Edge, is scheduled to be the first ocean cruise to leave from a U.S. port — Port Everglades — since March 2020 on June 26. The seven-night cruise will visit The Bahamas and Mexico.
Celebrity plans to use the same vaccination requirement for its Florida cruises, in violation of a Florida law that prevents businesses from asking patrons for proof of vaccination, potentially exposing the company to millions of dollars of fines.
On Monday, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan Jr. sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urging him to make an exception to the law for cruise companies to better protect Caribbean residents from the virus.
(Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.)
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