David Hancock spent his September vacation doing things he’d never done. He went on a cruise for the first time, hugged a sloth at an animal park in Honduras, and at some point during the trip, likely contracted COVID-19.
The 36-year-old firefighter had avoided infection for two years, but tested positive the morning after he and his wife, Melissa, who had been celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, returned home to Savannah, Tennessee.
But not even COVID could put a damper on their Royal Caribbean International sailing. “I went all that time since COVID began without getting it … so I went and got it on a cruise ship,” he told USA TODAY.
“But because I was vaccinated and boosted, my symptoms were mild,” he said, adding that he would definitely go on a cruise again.
Many recent cruise line policy changes reflect a shifting approach to the pandemic. Major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line International dropped their vaccine requirements for many sailing in early September and eased testing rules, about two weeks before Hancock left for his seven-night voyage.
However, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships in July and stopped updating its related webpage, COVID spread amid the more relaxed approaches have been a relative mystery.
But data from the CDC obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request shed some light on the numbers cruise lines reported to the agency after the rules were changed.
The numbers also only represent new COVID cases identified by positive viral tests on cruise ships entering or leaving from the U.S. The data does not show the test positivity rate or the number of passengers on the sailings.