(Updated 1:19 p.m. EDT) -- None of the UnCruise Adventures' passengers or crew who were quarantined in Alaska after a positive COVID-19 test from a guest scrapped the cruise -- and the rest of the small ship line's season -- has tested positive for the virus, the line has reported.
The containment of the virus through the line's rapid response shows that COVID-19 policies can be put in place to protect cruise passengers, UnCruise Adventures said in a statement.
"Strict planning paid off," UnCruise Adventures Owner and CEO Dan Blanchard said. "We were able to act quickly, but that doesn't mean this event has not been painful to our company and guests. Our policies held up and may be a footprint for future sailings and the industry."
The scenario experienced by UnCruise echoes that of Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia, where only one passenger tested positive for the virus, as well as on SeaDream I in Norway, where passengers were quarantined due to a former passenger's positive test -- but no one onboard the current sailing caught the virus.
In all cases, just one positive test ended up scrapping an entire voyage, and in the case of UnCruise and SeaDream, an entire season of sailing.
"Is there a better way?" UnCruise Adventures asks.
Testing Remains Essential, But What's The Accuracy?
Throughout the pandemic, problems with COVID-19 tests have plagued not only cruising, but also society at large.
Tests have been notoriously hard to get in many places, with long turnaround times for results. People who have undeniable COVID-19 symptoms often test negative several times, while people who test positive one day might receive a negative test the next -- and be asymptomatic to boot.
A high-profile example came last week, when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine tested positive for COVID-19, then tested negative a few hours later.
The passenger on UnCruise who sparked the quarantine also had a series of conflicting tests. In a timeline released by the line, the passenger tested negative for COVID-19 before leaving his home state July 28. A retest at the Juneau airport August 1 came back positive; the cruise line and the passenger were notified August 4, causing the ship to turn back to Juneau and other guests and crew put into quarantine.
While the crew stayed on the boat, passengers were put up at a hotel in Juneau, with everyone retested August 6. The next day, August 7, the majority of the guests -- 32 out of 36 -- were greenlit to fly home by the state of Alaska.
The original guest with the positive result since has tested negative, according to the cruise line.
"It would be really easy to say this was a false-positive, but the reality is it's not that simple," said Blanchard during a conference call with media on August 13. "We understand that the particular test -- the PCR tests that was used in Juneau (in which the passenger tested positive) -- is one of the most reliable tests out there."
"We stand with doctors, epidemiologists and science, and we feel this was a positive."
Rapid Response Tests the Answer?
Blanchard has been an advocate of rapid response tests, where people can find out almost instantly if they have a positive or negative result. This is the path that MSC Cruises intends to go down, with COVID-19 testing in the cruise terminal itself, when it returns to cruising in Italy this weekend.
"Rapid testing, in my mind would make a huge difference," said Blanchard. "If we'd had a rapid tester at the Juneau airport and it had a four hour return on it that would make the difference between boarding that guest and not boarding that guest."
Blanchard noted issues with sourcing rapid testing equipment, including the apparatus itself and testing cartridges, for a smaller business like UnCruise.
"We know that testing is out there but it's not typically available for companies of our size," he said. "I'm told the test kits are available but the analyzers are not. It's probably not too long before rapid testing is available, but of course it has to be effective rapid testing."
"We are in constant contact with our senators in Alaska and congresspeople in Alaska and Washington," Blanchard said. "They are aware of the situation and they are aware of the need for a nationwide rapid-testing program."
UnCruise has already canceled its Alaska season, which was going to be the only one in a state that receives a heavy economic contribution from the cruise industry. With reduced capacity -- only 37 passengers were on a ship that normally carries 60 -- and a host of other safety measures, the adventure line believes it did everything right, working carefully and consistently with the state of Alaska and local communities.
"Small businesses like ours have taken a considerable hit during COVID, and this was a big one." Blanchard said. "We have taken proactive steps and understand our responsibility to our guests, crew, communities and the industry. Safety remains our focus, and we will continue to accelerate protocol standards."
Blachard remains proud of his company and staff, and the fact that their protocols worked and prevented community spread. He notes, however, the cost to UnCruise has been significant.
"It just killed us," he said.
Perhaps the last word comes from a Cruise Critic member, who was onboard the aborted sailing. Writes Dazed07:
"I'm one of the UnCruise passengers (not the positive one, at least not yet), sitting in a hotel room in Juneau waiting for the latest round of test results.
"First, none of us, passengers or crew, to the best of my knowledge, are showing any symptoms.
"Second, UnCruise has handled this very well. During the cruise the first three days, strong hygiene was practiced in terms of cleaning, food serving, face masks, daily temperature checking and social distancing on board. Passenger levels were low and staff levels high.
"The passenger who tested positive did so at the Juneau airport, before arriving on board, but the results of that test didn't arrive until three days into the cruise. At that point, the ship headed directly back to port, meals were served in cabins, and extra precautions were taken.
"On arrival, passengers walked to a nearby hotel, where meals and laundry service have all been arranged by UnCruise. Senior cruise line staff have been in constant contact with us and very helpful. Today, one day after arrival, we were retested, with results expected Sunday-Monday. What happens next depends on the results and the decisions of the state of Alaska.
"UnCruise passengers tend to be sophisticated and adventurous travelers and we all seem to be taking this in stride. People were aware of the risks upfront. Out of the usual hundreds of thousands of cruisers over the Alaska summer, the 36 of us got three days of kayaking, bushwhacking and whale watching in a beautiful part of the world."