Dr. Stephen Ostroff said he is comfortable unmasked, indoors, circulating among 2,608 other (mostly) unmasked people.
This is not what one expects to hear from a 20-plus-year veteran of the CDC who specialised in emerging infectious diseases and who also served as the chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration (stepping in as acting director twice).
But there is a very special circumstance that makes the doctor feel comfortable without a mask, indoors, among thousands of people: Every single one of them is certified to have been vaccinated and has had a negative Covid test before joining him inside.
"Inside" is within the confines of the Encore, the first Norwegian Cruise Line ship to sail from a US port since the pandemic was declared.
A self-described "vaccination zealot", Ostroff served on the Healthy Sail Panel of experts put together by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) and Royal Caribbean Group that came up with 74 recommendations to minimise onboard health risks.
That was prior to widespread availability of the Covid-19 vaccine. Today, Ostroff sits on a successor panel, NCLH's SailSAFE Global Health and Wellness Council, a post-vaccine committee that continues to provide health and sanitisation guidance to NCLH in order to minimise the risks of cruising during a pandemic.
The CDC has offered two choices to cruise ships sailing from US ports: Either sail with at least 95% of guests and crew vaccinated, with no obvious restrictions for guests, or sail with lower rates of vaccinated guests and crew and then layer on protocols that will noticeably impact the cruise experience.
One hundred percent ought to be the standard for cruise ships, plain and simple. This is the [safest you can be], other than locking yourself into your house.
But, Ostroff told media aboard the Encore, "there's a difference between 100% and 95%. One hundred percent ought to be the standard for cruise ships, plain and simple. This is the [safest you can be], other than locking yourself into your house."
NCL president Harry Sommer elaborated, using the Encore as an example. "In a ship this size, with only 95% vaccinated, you could have 200 unvaccinated passengers and 100 unvaccinated crew. We won't be in that situation."
Ostroff cited three standards he feels are necessary to sail safely, even with 100% vaccinated guests and crew: First and foremost, keep the virus from getting on the ship. Second, if it does get aboard, make sure opportunities for it to spread are minimised. And third, minimise the likelihood that if someone picks up the virus they become severely sick, and if they do, take care of them.
Vaccinations and testing are needed for No. 1. Testing is particularly crucial, he said, because the best of the vaccines is only 95% effective.
Advanced air filtration, disinfectants and contact tracing address No. 2 (applying facial recognition software to scan the ship's ubiquitous video feed speeds contact tracing).
And free medical care for respiratory issues, an onboard ICU, isolation cabins and a policy of prorated refunds support No. 3.
"We've come pretty close to creating a bubble," Ostroff said. "If the unvaccinated are present, you can't accomplish these three things to the same degree. The delta variant focuses like a laser on the unvaccinated. Even if there are only a small number of them, it will find them."
Perhaps as an indication of just how safe a 100% vaccinated cruise is versus, well, anywhere else, Ostroff said there is a circumstance in which he would don his mask on the ship: as he prepares to leave for a shore excursion.
Being on a 100% vaccinated ship, he asserted, "shows you what's possible".
Source: Travel Weekly