By Rebecca Smith 

Cruise-ship workers suffered from more confirmed cases of Covid-19 than passengers, according to newly released government data, suggesting that a slow, arduous process for repatriating idled crew members increased their exposure to the contagious virus.

Crew members also had more cases of "Covid-like illness" of undetermined cause than passengers, according to the data released Friday to The Wall Street Journal.

Most cruise ships disembarked passengers in March and April, as cruising wound down due to the pandemic. It was difficult for crew members to get off ships due to barriers including closed borders, lengthy quarantine periods and the logistical difficulty of securing the necessary charter and commercial flights.

More than two out of every three Covid-19 infections confirmed through testing, at 69%, involved crew members, according to the data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An even larger percentage of cases of "Covid-like illness" involved ships' employees, at 71%. Passengers, of course, were far more numerous than crew, early in the pandemic, but they were on ships for shorter periods.

The information provided by the CDC shows that some ships had their last Covid-19 case as recently as June 21, long after the cruise lines stopped taking passengers.

Passengers, who were generally older than crew members, died in greater numbers than crew members, with 21 passenger deaths versus 12 crew deaths, according to the CDC, the agency that looks out for the health of Americans.

The data, which covered 121 vessels, came from cruise-line reports and public health officials' counts and covered the period from March 1 to June 23, for what the CDC described as ships in the U.S. jurisdiction, though not always in U.S. waters. Some cases of infection on cruise ships, identified when people returned to their home countries, didn't appear to have been included, according to the Journal's analysis.

Of those on the CDC's list, the ships with the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 and Covid-like illness, combined, according to the data, were Disney Cruise Line's Wonder and four Carnival Corp. ships: the Zaandam, the Grand Princess, the Valor and the Coral Princess. Together, they accounted for more than one-third of the CDC's total of confirmed and possible cases, at 990 of 2,902.

The five ships with the most confirmed Covid-19 cases were the Wonder, the Grand Princess, the Valor, Royal Caribbean Cruises' Celebrity Eclipse and Carnival Corp.'s Freedom, according to the data.

The most deaths were tied to the Grand Princess, the Zaandam and the Coral Princess according to the CDC, with a total of 17 passenger deaths and three crew deaths, or 20 out of 33 fatalities overall, the data indicates.

The data excludes hundreds of ships with itineraries outside the U.S., including some with significant Covid-19 outbreaks, such as the Diamond Princess and Ruby Princess, whose problems surfaced in Japan and Australia, respectively.

Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival, said his company has "no argument on the numbers tied to positive test results, but completely disagrees with the concept of 'suspected cases' since this is not medically valid or accurate." He added that equating symptoms of Covid-19 with the illness, itself, is "nothing but pure speculation."

He added that Carnival, which operates cruise brands including Princess Cruises and Holland America, has repatriated more than 77,000 crew members and therefore the infection rate, if anything, "showcases that our protocol in place on our ships has largely been successful" in preventing even greater spread of the virus.

Disney said it tested all crew members on the Wonder in early May, amounting to nearly 750 people, and that this widespread testing may partly explain the seemingly high number of positive cases on the ship, which the CDC pegged at 227.

Disney said more than half of the Wonder crew who tested positive had no symptoms, so without testing it wouldn't have known these individuals needed to be isolated to protect other crew members. It said it hasn't had any new infections on the Wonder since May.

Royal Caribbean declined to comment.

--Andrea Fuller contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Smith at rebecca.smith@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 11, 2020 13:10 ET (17:10 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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