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CDC warns against cruise ship travel

 The Norwegian Gem cruise ship is docked at PortMiami on Aug. 9, 2021.
Wilfredo Lee
The Norwegian Gem cruise ship is docked at PortMiami on Aug. 9, 2021.

In a potentially ominous message for Florida’s cruise-ship industry, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that people should avoid cruise travel “regardless of vaccination status” because of the spread of COVID-19.

The health agency said outbreaks have been reported aboard cruise ships as the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has helped drive up infections.

“Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants,” the agency said on its website. “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose.”

The agency said people who travel on cruise ships should make sure they are fully vaccinated and get tested for COVID-19 before and after their trips.

Carnival Cruise Lines, the only cruise company that operates out of Jaxport, has suspended its Jacksonville service since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Carnival has continued to run vaccinated cruises elsewhere in the United States under strict CDC guidelines, while allowing cruisegoers in Florida to receive a medical exemption from vaccine requirements if they have written confirmation from their doctor.

The cruise line said Thursday that the Carnival Ecstasy ship will return to Jacksonville on March 7 regardless of the CDC's advice.

Jaxport did not comment specifically about the CDC's guidance and deferred to Carnival.

"We remain in regular contact with Carnival and continue to work with all of our cruise industry service providers to prepare for the safe return of cruising from Jaxport when the time comes," a spokeswoman said.

The port made nearly $2 million from the cruise industry during the six months it operated in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The loss of Carnival contributed to the state's decision to award the port $13.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding earlier this year to make up for lost revenue.

The CDC notice came after months of efforts by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody to fight federal COVID-19 restrictions on the cruise industry and to prevent requirements that cruise passengers show proof of vaccination.

A Tampa federal judge sided with the state in June and issued a preliminary injunction against CDC restrictions on the industry, while a Miami federal judge in August backed Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in a challenge to Florida’s ban on so-called “vaccine passports.” The vaccine passport law blocked businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, though the federal judge’s ruling only applied to Norwegian.

Appeals in both of those cases are pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The CDC notice Thursday came as Florida and other states have seen massive surges in COVID-19 cases. Florida reported 58,013 new cases Wednesday, the most in a single day since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, Orange County cautioned Thursday that case numbers could go higher after social gatherings around Christmas.

Orange County, which takes part in a program that evaluates wastewater for traces of COVID-19, said it received data Wednesday that showed “historic increases of COVID-19 remnants in the county’s wastewater service areas.”

“This data helps predict infections four to 10 days before we see changes in our community’s caseload, allowing county leadership and medical professionals to adjust public health resources accordingly,” Ed Torres, director of Orange County Utilities, said in a prepared statement. “Because both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers of the virus shed remnants in their waste, this data provides an accurate picture of how the virus is spreading in our community regardless of the number of people tested.”

Florida hospitals also have seen steady increases this week in numbers of inpatients with COVID-19, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal agency’s website Thursday reported that 4,433 Florida hospital inpatients had COVID-19. That was up from a reported 3,836 inpatients with COVID-19 on Wednesday, 3,148 on Tuesday and 2,406 on Monday.

Baptist Health resumed daily COVID updates in response to rising caseloads. As of Wednesday, Baptist was treating 65 patients in its five hospitals, four of them in intensive care. Four of the patients were children, none in ICU.

Seventy-three percent of the COVID patients age 5 and over were unvaccinated, Baptist said.

While hospitalization numbers have increased, they remain far below the totals this summer, when the delta variant of the coronavirus spread through the state. For instance, Florida had 15,177 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sept. 1, according to federal data.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida
Raymon Troncoso
Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity.