The first cruise ship set to dock in Saint John in more than two years because of the pandemic is under investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control because of COVID-19 cases on board.
Seven Seas Navigator, due to arrive on April 28, is listed at the "orange" level on the CDC's cruise ship status dashboard, which means at least 0.3 per cent of passengers or crew have suspected or confirmed cases.
"CDC has started an investigation and [the] ship remains under observation," the website states.
The cruise ship operator, Regent Seven Seas, did not respond Thursday to a request for an interview.
Seven Seas Navigator has a passenger capacity of 490, and the CDC lists the ship's vaccination status as "highly vaccinated."
There are currently 489 people on board — 115 passengers and 374 crew, according to Port Saint John's chief operating officer Andrew Dixon.
That means two positive or suspected cases would be enough to qualify for the CDC's orange status, he said.
"So a very low number. It's such a low cut off point, if you like, that 50 per cent of the active cruise ships on the water right now [under CDC jurisdiction] are, in fact, in orange status."
The dashboard lists 51 vessels operating in orange status, 28 in yellow, and 21 in green.
The ship, which departed Miami on Monday, on a 25-night round cruise, is currently in Jacksonville, Fla., with five other U.S. stops scheduled before Saint John, according to the company's website.
The CDC investigation does not prevent the vessel from continuing on to Saint John, said port spokesperson Paula Copeland.
The decision to deny access to a Canadian port authority because of a communicable disease on board a vessel is at the discretion of the Public Health Agency of Canada quarantine officer, she said.
"Just as there's cases of COVID in every city in Canada and the US, as you know, we work towards ending the pandemic, you can have incidents of small numbers of positive cases of COVID on board a vessel," said Dixon.
"The only time that it is of concern is when [the status] goes to red," which means more than 0.3 per cent of people have confirmed or suspected COVID-19, "and for whatever reason, the vessel is unable to manage the situation without assistance."
Any confirmed or suspected cases would be isolating, said Dixon.
He also noted the ship is more than a week away from Saint John, so anyone who's infected might recover by then or disembark at one of the other port calls along the way.
Seven Seas Navigator is scheduled to be in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, with stops in New York, Newport, Cape Cod Canal and Boston before arriving in Saint John. The ship previously visited Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas and Port Canaveral, Fla.
What does investigation involve?
As part of its investigation, the CDC will obtain additional information from the cruise ship, such as case exposure histories, details about close contacts, proportion of travellers on board who are vaccinated against COVID-19, and the ship's medical capacities, according to the website.
"If warranted, CDC inspectors can conduct in-person inspections to verify that all public health interventions are being implemented as recommended to control onboard transmission."
In addition, CDC may, among other things:
Test all passengers mid-voyage, and/or prior to the end of the voyage, regardless of the passengers' vaccination status.
Increase the frequency of routine screening testing of crew.
Require mask use by all passengers and crew indoors and in crowded outdoor areas.
All cruise ship passengers and crew must be be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 under Transport Canada rules announced in March for the 2022 season.
Passengers must also take a COVID-19 molecular test within 72 hours before they board or take an antigen test within one day of boarding.
The same rule applies to passengers disembarking from a cruise ship in Canada.
Cruise ship operators must inspect proof of vaccination and pre-boarding test results, test suspected cases, isolate positive cases and test close contacts of positive cases.
"Everybody's done a whole lot of work to make sure this is a very safe program," said Dixon. "And we believe it to be, you know, the safest method of having visitation open up … that will not be taxing on our own health system."
A cruise is the only mode of travel that still requires a negative COVID test for vaccinated travellers and comes with its own "medical facilities in tow," he said.