Princess Cruises ships had early COVID-19 outbreaks. The cruise line is now 'ready and well-equipped,' top exec says

The Diamond Princess cruise ship is docked at Daikoku Pier in Yokohama, Japan, on Feb. 7, 2020. A coronavirus outbreak on the ship infected more than 700 people, and more than a dozen died.
Morgan Hines

In February 2020, Princess Cruises found itself at the center of the COVID-19 narrative after an outbreak on the cruise line's Diamond Princess ship. More than 700 people were infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and more than a dozen died. At one point, the ship had the highest concentration of coronavirus cases outside China.

"The quarantine process failed," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the USA TODAY Editorial Board.

Shortly after passengers disembarked, another Princess ship, the Grand Princess, faced an outbreak, resulting in another quarantine and dozens of COVID-19 cases. Shortly after, the U.S. cruise industry was shut down for more than a year.

On March 10, 2020, medical personnel help load passengers onto buses as they disembark from the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland in California after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Jan Swartz, group president of Holland America Group, which includes Princess Cruises, had a front seat to the mayhem as COVID-19 spread through ships and across the world. Swartz has served as president of Princess Cruises since 2013 and was promoted to her group president role in December

About 16 months after the cruise industry was shuttered, the Carnival cruise line is back in service with a vaccine requirement in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Swartz told USA TODAY that she has learned a lot since the Diamond Princess announced it would enter quarantine Feb. 3, 2020. "I think we, along with the world, did not understand the impact COVID-19 would have on all of us."

She said COVID-19 has challenged "virtually all people and all companies" though it challenged the cruise industry "particularly so" as the industry was shut down for so long.

Jan Swartz is president of Princess Cruises and group president of Holland America Group.

Since then, Swartz said, the industry, like the world, has learned more about how COVID-19 works and added layers of protection for passengers, crew members and port communities. 

"The cruise industry is ready and well-equipped to handle protecting our guests from COVID-19," Swartz said. 

That doesn't mean there will never be a case of COVID-19 on board.

"We see everywhere – and certainly in some communities much more – that COVID is still spreading in larger society, and so we can expect that there will be cases of COVID on ships like there are on land, in schools, you name it. So we have many procedures in place should we have positive cases," Swartz said, including isolation, contact tracing and onboard medical staff.

Princess Cruises has sailed three ships since returning to service, though the cruise line declined to share details of any COVID-19 cases on board. 

With protocols in place, a situation like what unfolded on Diamond Princess and Grand Princess in which all passengers had to quarantine, is unlikely. Measures in the USA, Europe and elsewhere have effectively mitigated COVID-19 risk, Swartz said.

She wasn't prepared to say a quarantine would never happen. The decision to implement a full quarantine would be at the discretion of the CDC. 

To create the onboard protections over the past 16 months, Swartz said, Princess engaged with the CDC, the World Health Organization and medical experts designing procedures and practices to respond to COVID-19 on cruise ships. That protocol is subject to updates, she said.

Swartz said passenger protections include a vaccine requirement in line with CDC protocol, meaning at least 95% of crew and 95% passengers must be vaccinated. Princess added pre-cruise testing and an indoor masking requirement announced last week as the delta variant spreads.

"It's a very dynamic situation, so I think we can all expect more change ahead," Swartz said.

The changes made to protect passengers from the pandemic may outlast it.

There are "very few land-based alternatives that can offer or are offering those layers of protection to their guests," she said. 

 Opinion:Six COVID-19 cases emerged on my Royal Caribbean cruise. Here's why I didn't panic

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