At least seven passengers on the first cruise ship to set sail in the Caribbean since the pandemic began have tested positive for the coronavirus—but the SeaDream 1’s captain announced Friday that anyone without COVID-19 may be free to leave the ship as early as Saturday.
Three of the 53 passengers on board told The Daily Beast that, moments after confirming the seventh diagnosis on Friday, the captain said passengers who tested negative could be free to travel home on Saturday. Some may even leave on Friday, Captain Torbjorn Lund said, but no details were given on when and how the passengers would disembark.
The COVID-positive group consists of five family members from the U.S. and another couple. While the infected people have been said to have mild symptoms, at least one has been taken to the hospital. Lund said the infected passengers will soon leave, presumably to a facility in Barbados.
“It’s actually good and bad news,” Gene Sloan, a cruise writer for The Points Guy who is on board the ship, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “The Barbados authorities and the ship’s captain do not think the coronavirus has spread beyond these two groups. What they said this morning is that it’s looking like they are going to let the negative people off the ship as early as tomorrow. Meaning, negative passengers can travel and fly home tomorrow without quarantining.”
And for Ben and David Hewitt-McDonald, who run a YouTube channel and blog about their voyages, the possibility of leaving their cabin after five days in quarantine is welcome news.
“Just a bit of cabin fever!” the couple said on Friday, adding that the ship will let negative passengers go to the ship’s deck on Friday, in staggered times, for “some fresh air.”
But experts are not in agreement as to whether the decision to allow passengers who have tested negative in tests administered by both the ship and Barbados authorities to disembark without any quarantine plan.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in infectious diseases, stressed to The Daily Beast that allowing the COVID-negative passengers to leave the ship is important to ensure the ship doesn’t facilitate more cases.
“After seeing things like the Diamond Princess, where the ship was inundated with cases after being a sitting duck, it’s important that passengers who tested [negative] get off the ship,” Adalja said, referring to one of two cruises where COVID-19 outbreaks earlier in the year resulted in ten deaths and more than 800 infections. “There is not a situation where you get zero cases in a small space like this, but it seems like the ship handled it the best way they could.”
The CDC banned cruises in March but issued new guidance in October to help an industry paralyzed by the pandemic safely resume operations.
The SeaDream’s seven-day voyage marked the first time it returned to the West Indies since the start of the pandemic, which has killed almost 240,000 Americans.
“I don’t think you can compare the current situation to the Diamond princess,” Adalja said. “The mitigation measures that were going on the ship show that they were doing everything they could. There is always a risk when you have people close together—whether it’s a cruise or the Staten Island ferry. That’s the problem with mixing during this ongoing pandemic.”
The SeaDream departed from Barbados on Saturday with 53 passengers and 66 crew members. It had traveled to Saint Vincent, Canouan Island, Tobago Cays, and Union Island, and was set to end on Saturday.
However, four days into the trip, a passenger told crew members he was feeling ill. The captain made an announcement for all guests to return to their rooms to quarantine before turning the vessel immediately back to Barbados.
“The quarantine procedures were put into action straight away, we were all instructed to return immediately to our cabins to self-isolate,” the Hewitt-McDonalds said. “The captain is giving very regular announcements over the speakers in each cabin. He has also personally called each cabin and guest to check if they are OK.”
Passengers told The Daily Beast the ship’s swift response mirrored the rigorous pre-cruise protocol. Every passenger had to test negative 72 hours before boarding and again once they boarded. The goal was “to create a COVID-19 negative bubble” on the ship, SeaDream said in September when announcing 22 Caribbean cruises.
Masks were initially optional but, after some complaints from passengers, were later made mandatory.
“The first few days of the trip were pretty normal,” Sloan said, adding that passengers were encouraged to social distance and everything was sanitized regularly. “The passengers on board were really excited to be back cruising.”
He said everyone was tested several times during the trip and that, at each location stop, they were told not to interact with locals and were shuttled to empty beaches and resorts.
Since the mandatory cabin quarantine began, passengers have been tested at least twice—once with a rapid test done by an Abbott ID NOW testing machine on board, and then with a second PCR lab test by the local health department in Barbados.
But Dr. Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer for Healix International, which provides medical advice to companies with clients traveling internationally, warns that the accuracy of any COVID-19 test “can vary considerab[ly].”
“It’s very convenient of course to be able to get rapid results from testing, and you really couldn’t use PCR testing in a cruise ship scenario because it simply takes too long. However, the drawback is that you inevitably sacrifice accuracy,” he told The Daily Beast. No test is 100 percent accurate, “not even the gold standard RT-PCR testing,” he said.
“There have certainly been documented instances that have shown that the Abbott ID NOW can miss infections 20 percent to 30 percent of the time—sometimes this is because they are not being used exactly as instructed, and Abbott have claimed that they perform in the mid-80s to mid-to-high-90s,” he added.
Despite possible inaccuracies, Hyzler said that, if passengers have tested negative several times, “it is reasonable to assume that they are not ‘infectious’ at the time of travel” and could fly home. He said studies have shown planes are safe if masks are worn, and people “should feel confident” about passengers going home if they’ve tested negative twice.
“This is not to say that they are not ‘infected’... It may turn out that they test again when they get home and they come back with a positive test result,” he said. “This is down to the incubation period of COVID-19 of 5-7 days, and usually between 2 and 12 days in a broad sense—there are of course some outliers.”
The SeaDream didn’t immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment about the decision to disembark passengers on Saturday.
The three passengers who spoke to The Daily Beast on Friday were extremely thankful to the ship’s crew but said they were ready to leave.
“If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, it’s probably because I’m on a flight home,” Sloan said with a laugh. “I’m ready to get out of here.”