As the world begins to re-open to tourists, some travelers are showing renewed interest in cruising. But even if guests are willing to board ships again, how can cruise lines keep passengers and crew healthy while COVID-19 still looms? The solution may be a technology that halts onboard outbreaks before they can spread: Contact tracing.
An onboard contact-tracing system can provide a valuable supplement to other health measures employed by the cruise lines. When a contagious guest or crew member has been identified, contact tracing helps identify other people onboard who may have had significant contact with that person. Those people can then be tested and quarantined, if necessary, to minimize the spread of the virus.
“If contact tracing of one infected person reveals another infected person, then the contact tracing expands to cover that new person’s recent whereabouts to locate others who may have been infected, and so on,” said Nick Kyriakides, Chief Operating Officer of netTALK MARITIME, a company that specializes in contact tracing and onboard health services for cruise lines. “This minimizes the possibility of a vast outbreak onboard.”
To implement contact tracing, each person onboard must have a wearable. The wearables for guests and staff members would log their contacts and presence in a certain area at a certain time. This narrows the field of who might have been exposed to the virus by someone nearby. Focus would be on controlled public spaces such as the dining room, show lounge, casino, and bars. Video surveillance cameras combined with analytics software can be leveraged for an additional level of contact tracing.
Return to Sailing via Center for Disease Control Guidance
As of October 31, 2020 the CDC lifted its no-sail order in exchange for a conditional sail order that requires a phased approach to resuming cruise ship operations. Before they can resume, cruise ships must prove they can mitigate the risk of COVID-19 among passengers, crew, and U.S. communities. Contact tracing could play a significant role in that mitigation.
Unfortunately, for the tech companies that develop and refine contact-tracing systems, the CDC often changes its guidelines as our understanding of COVID-19 develops. For example, the CDC recently changed its criteria for contact tracing from people being within six feet of each other for 15 minutes, to people being within six feet of each other for 15 cumulative minutes within a 24-hour period. Changes like this require tech companies to retool their back-end systems, which is time consuming. Since the CDC generally gives very little notice of such changes, this could create a ripple effect into a ship’s COVID-19 mitigation status.
Before any contact-tracing system can be utilized, of course, the ship’s medical team must know who is infected. Cruise lines must implement systems to monitor and collect the vital signs of guests and crew throughout the duration of the cruise. “The sick person can be quarantined immediately, contact tracing can commence, and the chance of broad contamination is instantly minimized,” said Kyriakides.
Ideally, vital-sign monitoring would occur frequently and at key trigger points. For example, guests could be screened at check-in to prevent boarding a sick guest, and again when the guest disembarks and re-embarks at a port of call to prevent spread of disease to the local population and to quarantine a guest immediately to protect the other passengers. Monitoring could also occur within public areas of the ship to prevent contamination of large gatherings.
Similarly, the crew could be screened before boarding the ship to prevent boarding a sick worker. In addition, crew could be screened at various key work points, such as before entering passenger cabins and before manning workstations, and at daily scheduled times to verify the ongoing health of a worker and that he or she is safe to be around other crew and guests.
If screening results trigger review and action by the ship’s medical staff, then quarantine can be initiated if needed, and contact tracing begun.
Before the cruise industry can return to previous operations and capacity levels, health concerns must be addressed and CDC requirements must be met. Prompt quarantine followed by effective contact tracing could play a big role in the resumption of cruising.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Kyriakides is an expert in cloud-based communications and COO of netTALK MARITIME a robust tech solution that allows guests to enjoy a cruise vacation with the ability to enjoy communication and connectivity among friends and family on their cruise just as they would if they were on a land-based vacation.