Why cruise ships are still a health disaster waiting for us

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Erin Montgomery still gets emotional as she reminisces about her last voyage on the MS Zaandam cruise ship.

“It was horrible,” she tells the Post, breaking down in tears. Montgomery, then in his mid-50s, worked as the ship’s sanitation officer. “People are dying from you and you’re helpless to do anything about it.”

On March 27, 2020, the Zaandam, a luxury cruise line operated by Carnival Corp., anchored off Panama City. With 1,242 passengers and 586 crew members, she had set sail just three weeks earlier.

Initially, few realized it, but “COVID-19 swept through the Zaandam,” write investigative journalists Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin in their new book, Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic ( Doubleday), available now.

Holland America’s Zaandam cruise ship prepares to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida April 2, 2020 after four passengers died from COVID-19.
AFP via Getty Images

The virus slowly crept in, infecting passengers and crew who assumed they were safe when shore-based doctors downplayed the risks. That sense of security shattered on March 27 when the captain made a chilling announcement over the ship’s loudspeakers: “Unfortunately, four of our guests have passed away.”

When the ship first left port in Argentina in early March, they were days away from the World Health Organization classifying COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Erin Montgomery has been hiding in her cabin during her 14-day quarantine aboard the Zandaam.
Erin Montgomery has been hiding in her cabin during her 14-day quarantine aboard the Zandaam.
Erin Montgomery

Montgomery was one of the first to fall ill. “I became nauseous on March 9, a week before it spread throughout the ship,” she said. “I’ve kept telling my managers I think we have COVID on board and they’re just giving people cough medicine and sending them back to work. They just thought I was a dramatic woman.” (Carnival’s requests for comment went unanswered.)

The story soon became international news, and when the ship finally docked in Port Everglades, Florida on April 2, 2020, four passengers were dead and hundreds more had contracted the virus. Over two years later, the cruise industry would like us to believe that this is all ancient history and that the pandemic is only a minor factor.

As recently as December, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans to avoid cruise ships altogether to protect themselves from the COVID-Omicron spike. But in late March, the CDC dropped his two-year consultation opposes cruise travel and said in a statement that travelers “should make their own risk assessment when deciding to travel on a cruise ship, similar to any other travel environment.”

Bookings on Virgin Voyages cruises increased by 120% since the beginning of the year, and Royal Caribbean and Carnival, two of the world’s largest cruise lines more bookings in a week than at any other time in its more than fifty year history.

Canadian passengers Chris and Anna Joiner seek help aboard the cruise ship during the coronavirus outbreak.
Canadian passengers Chris and Anna Joiner seek help aboard the cruise ship as the coronavirus outbreak begins.
via REUTERS

“Cruise lines have made tremendous changes to accommodate COVID,” co-author Franklin tells The Post. “However, you cannot change the basic fact that airborne viruses love cruise ships. During our research, we spoke to CDC officials who said if you could design the most efficient machine to spread COVID among 2,000 people, it wouldn’t look much different than a cruise ship.”

Franklin thinks it was a mistake to blame the health authorities on board the Zaandam – a small team of two doctors and four nurses with few COVID tests or reliable information about the virus. “You’re so far down the chain of command,” he says. “You have to realize that on board a cruise ship, even the captain is a subordinate employee in the overall Carnival Cruise system.”

Workers in hazmat suits remove luggage from the Zaandam cruise ship after it arrives in Port Everglades.
Workers in hazmat suits haul luggage off the Zaandam after it arrives in Port Everglades.
Getty Images

But further up the food chain, “devastating mistakes have been made,” he says. As early as February, there were COVID outbreaks on cruise ships – including one ship that had more than half of the world’s confirmed cases outside of China – Franklin asks why they didn’t voluntarily suspend all their cruises much earlier.

“The Zaandam was like a last-ditch throw,” he said. “A risk that many people have paid for with their lives.”

It’s easy to split hairs over the mistakes made on the Zaandam and other cruise ships during COVID in the first year of the pandemic. But a more pressing question for the future is, could it happen again?

As of today, according to the CDC color-coded chart of ship outbreaks, 100% of cruise ships currently traveling with passengers have cases of COVID onboard.

Passengers on Holland America's Zaandam cruise ship are rebooked onto the Rotterdam cruise ship in Panama City.
Passengers on Holland America’s Zaandam cruise ship are rebooked onto the Rotterdam cruise ship in Panama City.
AFP via Getty Images

This is because more and more cruise lines have chosen to make masks optional for vaccinated guests. In early July, Holland America became the first US-based cruise line Dropping COVID testing requirements on some ships and other large cruise lines could follow soon. COVID cases rise while protocols to protect passengers are scrapped.

Montgomery, now 57, plans to return to her first job aboard a cruise ship after nearly two years. “I wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits from Carnival,” she says. “It was a struggle to pay the bills.” So when she got an opportunity to work in the kitchens of another cruise line — she won’t name the company — she jumped at the opportunity. . . with some concern.

She says she worries that even protocols aren’t helping when a ship is filled with guests who refuse to take COVID seriously, and she’s “still trying to decide if I really want to go back”.

Erin Montgomery photographed in San Francisco on July 3, 2022.
Erin Montgomery returns to sea this month for the first time in two years. She approaches her new job with trepidation but needs the steady paycheck.
Peter Thompson

Franklin, meanwhile, offers hope — and caveats. “Most cruise lines require all passengers to be vaccinated, they do extensive testing, and they have more medication to help with symptoms,” he says.

“So, overall, are cruise lines adapting to COVID? Yes. But one could also argue that the virus will adapt even better to cruise ships.”

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