It started as an inkling that something wasn't quite right.
Thursday, July 29, was COVID-19 testing day on Royal Caribbean International's Adventure of the Seas cruise ship, which offers testing as a courtesy to passengers before the sailing wraps up since many need a negative test to return home.
I was on assignment for USA TODAY and took my test at 7:30 a.m. opting for a PCR test, which was offered in addition to antigen testing. Within 20 minutes, I was in and out of the main dining room on Deck 5 where testing was being administered by Eurofins, with an onboard lab capable of delivering results within the day.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly. Passengers were spending a day at sea after the ship had visited Royal Caribbean's private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, and stopped in the port of Cozumel, Mexico, with some, myself included, disembarking for shore excursions.
As passengers on board rode the FlowRider and went down the water slide, played in the various pools and hung out at onboard bars, people began receiving COVID-19 test results via email.
Then, a few names were called over the ship's intercom system. I turned to my mom and wondered aloud if those passengers had received positive COVID-19 test results.
Later, two crew members, who were working as servers in the main dining room with our table in their section (and were wonderful), were missing at dinner.
It seemed like too big a coincidence.
I started asking questions. At first, I heard they had the night off then learned that some passengers had tested positive for COVID-19 via rapid antigen tests – the test many passengers received in order to return home. Our waitresses were rumored to have been in close contact with COVID-19-positive passengers and to be quarantining.
I reached out to the cruise line. Spokesperson Lyan Sierra-Caro answered me: COVID-19 had found its way on board Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas ship, despite the vaccination requirement for all passengers aged 16 and older and the directive for unvaccinated minors to wear masks on board.
Six passengers had tested positive for COVID-19, first with antigen tests and later confirmed by the more reliable PCR tests – four were vaccinated, and two were unvaccinated children. I had confirmation from Royal Caribbean in an article published on July 30.
But rumors swirled as the cruise line waited to announce the cases on the ship until departing from Grand Bahama Island when all the passengers were back on the ship. Someone heard through the crew, someone else from a vendor in port, many through the USA TODAY article.
By the time passengers were re-boarded from the port stop in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, the six passengers who tested positive and their traveling parties had already disembarked and were sent home via private transport provided by the cruise line at no cost to them.
All the passengers who tested positive were American citizens. Of the four vaccinated passengers, three were asymptomatic and one had mild symptoms. Both unvaccinated minors who tested positive were asymptomatic.
An onboard announcement finally came around 3:45 p.m. EDT when all passengers were back on board from shore excursions in Freeport, nearly six hours after USA TODAY published a story reporting the cases.
The cruise went on as normal, departing from Grand Bahama Island and returning to Nassau in the Bahamas the following morning. People lounged by the pool, enjoyed dinner and walked into the casino – their vacation time uninterrupted. Few murmurs circulated about the COVID-19 cases, and most passengers I talked to seemed unfazed.
My PCR test from last Thursday on the ship came back negative. After arriving home, I took a rapid test Tuesday and another Thursday – both results were negative.
I felt safer on the ship learning of an outbreak than I might have at home
A year ago, if you had asked me if I would have felt safe on a cruise ship, the answer would have been "no," especially after months of reporting on COVID-19 and the cruise industry, starting with an outbreak on Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess. With more than 700 cases of COVID-19 and more than a dozen deaths tied to the Diamond Princess, plus numerous other ships experiencing outbreaks, the industry shut down in March 2020. If you had asked me if I would have felt safe on a cruise ship with COVID-19 on board, the answer would have been "definitely not."
But when I found myself in that exact situation last week, I was surprised to find that I – and some others I spoke to on the ship – were less concerned than if COVID-19 had been in our backyard.
Royal Caribbean created a bubble on Adventure of the Seas, with a vaccine requirement in place for most passengers. And, every passenger needed to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within five days of arrival to the Bahamas to board the ship.
We know that COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, but they’re not 100% effective in preventing infection. A small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if they're exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die.
Once on the ship, my concerns dissipated.
The vessel, at 35% capacity, felt spacious, uncrowded. There were markers on the floor for social distancing, and tables were marked off, too, so that people kept their distance while dining. The crew was constantly sanitizing high-touch spaces such as stairwells, and hallways were fogged in the early hours of the morning. I also knew the majority of passengers were vaccinated, and all had tested negative for COVID-19 before boarding. The entire crew was also vaccinated.
And while children under 16 weren’t required to be vaccinated, they were required to wear a mask. Some between ages 12 and 16 were vaccinated and had a wristband to show that. All crew members were also required to be vaccinated.
Most passengers did a good job following guidelines and rules in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Many were social distancing on board, and many children were wearing masks, though not all.
Ninety-six percent of the "total on board community" were vaccinated, spokesperson Sierra-Caro confirmed to me after we got off the ship.
Contact tracing at home might have not been possible in the same way as it was on a ship. In the controlled environment created by the cruise line, Royal Caribbean was able to identify close contacts through passenger interviews and CCTV, Sierra-Caro told me after the cruise.
Passengers felt safe on board, too
Passengers expressed that they were happy with the way the cruise line handled the cases on board.
Daniel Smith, a 30-year-old passenger from Miami said he felt safer on the ship than he does at home. He was more nervous, he said after learning the news that COVID-19 was on board, about flying home the next day.
"Where in the world do you know everyone around you is vaccinated and tested other than a ship?" Smith asked.
Joel Swanson, 39, a passenger from Ponte Vedra, Florida, said that he felt confident in the cruise line's safety measures. "The fact that even (if) we somehow contracted COVID while on board, we would be transported home quickly, brought added peace of mind."
And passenger Ruby Berry, 46 from Kingsburg, California, said that while she was upset with the way the news wasn't communicated at first after hearing rumors throughout the ship ahead of the captain's announcement, she, nonetheless, felt safe.
"I feel Royal Caribbean faced a difficult situation, stuck to their planned protocols, kept everyone safe, and in the end the outcome was as best as it could be," she said.
John Chambers, 52 from Indian Lake, Texas, was on the ship with six of his family members. He said he was concerned when he heard of the cases but that concern is a constant for him. "I am always concerned about the possibility of becoming ill," he said.
"I felt the ship sincerely tried to balance safety and fun. There were much more safety protocols in place than any other form of travel or vacation," he said after disembarking.
Safety protocols were (mostly) good, but communication could have been better
The positive COVID-19 tests came back as part of a routine test, administered as a courtesy by the cruise line for passengers returning to countries that may require a negative test result for entry. Given that only one passenger had mild symptoms, we may never have known that six people tested positive, including four breakthrough cases, if the testing wasn’t offered.
More than 98% of the passengers opted to take a COVID-19 test before the cruise ended, according to Sierra-Caro. "Some guests did not participate because they had extended stays in the Bahamas, and the test would not be valid for their return home."
As a passenger, I would have preferred to hear from Royal Caribbean that antigen tests had come back positive and that contact tracing had been completed with all known contacts quarantining.
Then, I would have wanted a secondary announcement confirming that those passengers tested positive as soon as possible or, perhaps a note in my stateroom even as other passengers were ashore would have helped.
But rumors circulated, and immediate clarity would have quelled those sooner.
I'm glad I learned there were COVID-19 cases on the ship. That knowledge allowed me to take the right steps when I returned home, such as taking two additional COVID-19 tests, just in case.
Not all cruise ships, cruise lines have the same COVID-19 protocols
If I were to go on a cruise for a personal vacation, I would want to be on a ship with a vaccination requirement whether that be for all eligible passengers, or even better, 100% vaccinated.
Not all cruises have the same requirements for boarding or on board. Researching these before you book is a vital step to feeling comfortable in returning to cruising amid the pandemic.
And with the CDC last week urging vaccinated Americans in high-transmission areas to wear their masks indoors, it is worth taking personal precautions, too. One thing I wished I'd thought of was to pack disinfecting wipes to wipe down our cabin as an extra precaution, which weren't available on board. Luckily, our considerate stateroom neighbor picked up disinfecting wipes for us in Cozumel.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Royal Caribbean cruise: COVID cases on my ship didn't lead to panic