Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’re fully aware that a new illness called 2019-nCov (a.k.a. coronavirus) is spreading like wildfire from its epicenter in Wuhan, China. Although it has a very low mortality rate, it’s still causing a lot of fear that is spreading just as quickly. It’s also beginning to impact the travel industry, most notably (in the media, anyway) the cruise industry. I’d like to use this post to present what we know so far about the coronavirus, how it’s currently impacting cruise lines, and how it may or may not impact your existing cruise reservations or any plans you have to cruise in the future.
2019-nCov is a new strain of a common virus.
I am certainly not an epidemiologist, so I will let the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do the talking for me. A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The 2019 novel coronavirus is not that same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals, including camels, cats and bats. If you’ve heard of SARS and MERS (both respiratory illnesses), they’re in the same family.
We still don’t know how easily it spreads.
Most often, spread from person-to-person happens among close contacts (about 6 feet). Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It’s currently unclear if a person can get 2019-nCoV by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
The common thinking when coronavirus started spreading is that it would happen after people became symptomatic, meaning when they had a fever or started coughing. We now know that the virus can spread from person-to-person before symptoms appear, which is why people are being quarantined for a 14-day potential incubation period. There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with 2019-nCoV and investigations are ongoing.
Coronavirus symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Just like any other respiratory virus, the severity of coronavirus symptoms can vary based on many factors. So far, we’ve seen the worst cases among people with compromised or weakened immune systems, like the elderly. In fact, most of the deaths directly attributed to coronavirus so far have been of people over the age of 50. Symptoms currently include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, and can evolve into pneumonia. The CDC believes at this time that symptoms of 2019-nCoV may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure. This is based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS viruses.
Only a few cruise ships have been affected by coronavirus so far.
It’s likely you’ve seen the news coverage of the Diamond Princess, currently docked for quarantine in Yokohama, Japan. Carrying roughly 3,700 passengers, as of February 8th, 64 of those passengers have tested positive for coronavirus. The virus was spread to the cruise ship by passengers who had been exposed while on land in China, then boarded the ship for the cruise. It spread from there. The ship is scheduled to continue quarantine until February 19th.
Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas was delayed while some passengers were being tested. Only one of them tested positive for the flu, and none of them tested positive for coronavirus. Originally it was supposed to sail for its planned Bahamas itinerary on February 8, but the departure has been delayed until February 10 for unspecified reasons. Also quarantined at sea is a ship operated by Dream Cruises, which is isolated in Hong Kong as a precaution after three previous passengers tested positive for the virus. More than 3,600 people are onboard.
Cruise lines are taking measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The severity of these preventative measures varies from ship to ship. Most major cruise lines are denying boarding to all people who have traveled from, visited, or transited via airports in China, including Hong Kong and Macau, within 14 days before embarkation. They are also denying boarding to all people who, within 14 days before embarkation, have had close contact with, or have cared for, anyone suspected or diagnosed as having coronavirus.
Several cruise lines are going a step further, denying boarding to any passenger who holds a Chinese, Hong Kong, or Macau passport. Many cruise lines are changing itineraries or canceling them outright. Norwegian Cruise Lines has canceled all Asia itineraries through December 2020. Other cruise lines have changed itineraries that involve Hong Kong or Shanghai and changed them to Singapore. Some itinerary changes are only for the next two months, while some of them extend through the summer or later.
Cruise itineraries not involving Asia are at extremely low risk for coronavirus.
It’s unwise to say that there is no risk at all, but given the facts as we know them right now, passengers embarking on cruises that don’t involve Asian ports of call should not be concerned. While it’s always possible that someone exposed to the virus may attempt to board a Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise, for example, it’s in the cruise line’s best interest to make sure this doesn’t happen. Passengers would also need to fly from China with a Chinese passport to reach these departure ports, allowing for yet another interdiction point by health authorities.
It’s important to note that it’s not just Chinese citizens who have been exposed to or are at risk of spreading coronavirus. The virus has been detected in dozens of other countries, which are taking extensive measures to contain the virus as best as possible. Authorities responsible for cruise embarkation ports will be enforcing boarding restrictions across the globe. Medical teams on all cruise ships are also very aware of enhanced prevention measures.
Your travel agent or cruise line are the best sources for accurate information.
Right now is the busiest time of the year for booking cruises, which I can guarantee, as I’m booking roughly one cruise every day for new clients. I’m receiving by email the most up-to-date information directly from cruise lines about the coronavirus and how each cruise line is working to prevent the spread on their ships. I’m also being notified about any cruise cancellations or itinerary modifications.
If you currently have a cruise booked, either in Asia or elsewhere, and have concerns, contact your travel agent with any questions. If you’re not using a travel agent, contact your cruise line directly with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that wait times on customer service lines may be very long right now. Before you call, check your cruise lines website, as most of them have pages dedicated to sharing information about how the coronavirus is affecting their operations.
Protect yourself from coronavirus like you would from a cold.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Many people have seen images online or on TV of thousands of Chinese citizens or other travelers wearing face masks. Why you may be tempted to run out to Home Depot or hit Amazon to buy one, the CDC actually does not recommend that people who are healthy wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory viruses, including 2019-nCoV. They recommend you only wear one if you have symptoms of coronavirus, and you want to protect other people from getting ill.
Avoid booking an Asia itinerary for now.
I hate telling people not to book a cruise, but I have no problem doing so in this situation. Everything is still new and fluid, and there are too many unknowns to be able to predict how the virus will spread. Coronavirus, just like SARS and MERS, will run its course, although we don’t know how long that will take. While I highly encourage booking cruises in other parts of the world, I would definitely avoid booking in Asia itinerary in 2020.
Purchase a trip protection policy with any cruise itinerary.
If you currently have an Asia cruise booked, your cruise line will compensate you or fully reimburse you for any changes they make as a result of coronavirus. However, if you’ve already made your final payment and decide to preemptively cancel your cruise out of fear or apprehension, there’s a good chance you won’t receive any reimbursement at all unless you have a “cancel anytime” trip protection policy.
I always advise all of my clients to purchase travel insurance for any vacation, but especially for cruises. Travel insurance policies will at least partially reimburse you for any cancellations you make as a result of a covered reason, like the death of an immediate family member, illness, or injury. However, you can purchase a more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy if you’re nervous about how the coronavirus situation might play out. As I said, itineraries outside of the Asia region are not currently being affected. However, if you’re concerned that this may change, such a policy would give you great peace of mind.
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Thank you for the timely update. Information from an involved professional means more to me that what news media chooses to report, omit, or enhance.