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Omicron suspected in cruise-ship outbreak in New Orleans; 17 cases so far

A cheerfully painted cruise ship towers over a rocky port.
Enlarge / MARSEILLE, FRANCE – 2020/05/25: The Norwegian Getaway cruise ship arrives in Marseille.

A Norwegian Cruise Line ship with 3,200 passengers and crew disembarked in New Orleans Sunday amid an onboard COVID-19 outbreak that includes a suspected case of the omicron coronavirus variant. So far, a total of 17 people who were aboard have tested positive.

The news raises concern that the outbreak could continue to grow and put those on land at further risk of the variant. Cruise ships are notorious for harboring outbreaks. At the dawn of the pandemic, several outbreaks at sea demonstrated just how easily the coronavirus can spread in such tightly packed and highly social vessels. And the omicron variant may be the most transmissible variant yet identified. Early data from South Africa suggests it could spread more than twice as quickly as the already hypertransmissible delta variant.

Over the weekend, state, local, and federal health officials worked with Norwegian Cruise Line to put disease-prevention protocols in place as people disembarked from the ship, Norwegian Breakaway. In a media statement Sunday, Norwegian Cruise Line said that everyone who disembarks will be tested. “Any guests who have tested positive for COVID-19 will travel by personal vehicle to their personal residence or self-isolate in accommodations provided by the Company according to CDC guidelines,” the cruise line said.

However, it’s unclear how effective those protocols will be and how passengers will be tracked once they’re on land. Reporters from WVUE Fox 8 in New Orleans spoke with passengers as they got off the ship and lined up for ground transportation. Some had heard about the outbreak, while others had not.

“Yeah, we didn’t hear of this until we kind of heard you talking a second ago,” Don Canole, a cruisegoer from North Carolina, told WVUE reporters as he stood in line. “It would have been nice to have known. We would have taken maybe a few more precautions.” Another former passenger in line also said they “were never told anybody was positive.”

All of the passengers and crew were required to be fully vaccinated before boarding Breakaway. They also had to test negative on an antigen test before setting sail. The vessel had departed from New Orleans on November 28, stopped in Belize, Honduras, and Mexico, then returned to New Orleans this weekend.

The omicron ship has sailed

How the coronavirus made its way onto the ship is unclear. On Saturday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported that the cruise line had detected 10 COVID-19 cases among Breakaway‘s passengers and crew. On Sunday, the health department reported an additional seven cases, including one probable omicron case among the crew. The health department added that “the crew member is not a Louisiana resident and did not leave the ship” but did not release any additional information about that case or the others.

The Louisiana health department did not immediately respond to a request from Ars for more information.

In addition to sparking concerns about omicron outbreaks at sea, the cases aboard Breakaway also once again highlight that spread of the variant was well underway when officials in South Africa first raised international alarm on November 24. The first case identified in the US was in a resident who had returned from South Africa on November 22. The second case was in a Minnesota man who had no recent international travel but had traveled to New York City November 19 through 21 for an anime convention attended by 53,000 people. He tested positive a few days later.

In a New York Times article published Sunday, that man was identified as Peter McGinn, a vaccinated 30-year-old health care analyst from Minneapolis. McGinn told the Times that he does not know how he got infected but that he spent his trip attending discussion panels at the convention, chatting with strangers about his anime podcast, and singing karaoke with friends at night.

After returning home to Minneapolis, McGinn said he felt unusually tired and had a slight cough. He soon learned that one friend from the convention, who lives in North Carolina, had tested positive. He told the Times that, since then, roughly half of the 30 vaccinated people he recalls socializing with from the convention have tested positive.

Currently, at least 17 US states have reported detecting omicron cases. That figure includes Louisiana, which reported its first probable case on December 3.

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