Francesca Street and Livia Borghese, CNN
One of the largest cruise ships operating in the Mediterranean has become the latest to be hit by a Covid outbreak amid the current global surge in virus cases.
MSC Cruises confirmed 45 Covid positive passengers disembarked from its MSC Grandiosa vessel in the Italian port of Genoa on Monday — fewer than 1% of those on board.
The vessel was ferrying 4,813 passengers and crew members on a round trip from Civitavecchia-Rome, with scheduled stop offs in Malta and Barcelona over the New Year.
All MSC Cruises crew members and passengers over the age of 12 are required to be fully vaccinated, while all travelers aged 2 and over must submit a predeparture negative test.
In a statement provided to CNN, MSC Cruises denied Italian media reports of a much higher number of Covid positive cases on board. The cruise line said the identification and removal of the sick passengers demonstrated its health and safety protocol — which also includes the wearing of face masks in indoor public areas — was working.
MSC Cruises said positive passengers and their close contacts were “immediately isolated in cabins with balconies.”
“In line with the protocol, we organize transportation back home, all done in alignment with the relevant health and other authorities,” said MSC Cruises’ statement.
Crew members on board MSC Grandiosa were said to have been tested every two days, while passengers were tested at the beginning and in the middle of the voyage. Passengers were also set to be tested at the journey’s end.
The MSC Grandiosa continued its voyage following the disembarkation, and is set to return to Rome Tuesday.
Back in Summer 2020, MSC Grandiosa was the first cruise ship to return to the Mediterranean following the global shut down of the multi billion-dollar cruise industry in Spring 2020.
Since then, cruising has also recommenced in the US market, and cruise companies across the globe have continued to enforce onboard health and safety requirements — and have updated regulations as conditions changed.
The aim, as a spokesperson for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry body that represents the world’s major cruise lines, told CNN Travel in December, is not to stop the virus getting on board altogether, but to control its impact.
“Recognizing that Covid will inevitably still occur given the nature of a pandemic, our members developed protocols that were designed to prevent, detect, and mitigate Covid-19 in a cruise environment,” said the CLIA spokesperson.
Cruise lines also hoped to avoid the chaos that ensued in Spring 2020, when virus-hit vessels were turned away from ports.
However following a spate of positive cases on board global cruises in recent weeks, some virus-hit ships have been refused entry to ports — such as the Carnival Freedom vessel, which Carnival Cruise Line confirmed was turned away from the Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Aruba in December.
And on December 30, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased the risk level for cruise ship travel to its highest level and said it should be avoided, regardless of vaccination status.
The move “reflects increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant,” the CDC website says.
“Since the identification of the Omicron variant, there has been an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases among cruise passengers and crew reported to CDC. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of cruise ships meeting the Covid-19 case threshold for CDC investigation,” the agency said.
CLIA expressed disappointment at the CDC’s elevated risk level.
“The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard — far fewer than on land — and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” the industry body said in a statement last week.
Top photo: MSC Grandiosa in Genoa, Italy on January 3, 2022. Photo by Luca Zennaro/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
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CNN’s Jason Hanna, Marnie Hunter and Naomi Thomas contributed to this report