7 fully vaccinated people test positive for COVID-19 on UnCruise ship sailing in Southeast Alaska

The Wilderness Adventurer docked in Juneau
The Wilderness Adventurer, an UnCruise Adventures boat, tied up in Juneau on July 31, 2020. On Aug. 1, the ship was the first tourism passenger ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 26, 2021, there were 7 cases of COVID-19 onboard another UnCruise ship, the Wilderness Explorer. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

Seven fully vaccinated people aboard a small cruise ship that docked in Ketchikan over the weekend have tested positive for COVID-19. The ship’s operator UnCruise canceled a sailing over this past weekend in response.

The 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer sailed to Juneau from Ketchikan Monday evening.

UnCruise spokesperson Liz Galloway said in a statement the four positive passengers would isolate in a Juneau hotel. Three positive crew members would isolate aboard the vessel, she said.

Assistant Juneau city manager Robert Barr said city officials have been coordinating with the operator.

“We’ve been working with UnCruise to make sure all that isolation is happening per public health guidance to make sure that the case activities stays contained to those individuals until they’re done with their isolation period,” he said.

Juneau officials say the risk to the community is minimal.

Ketchikan’s port director, Mark Hilson, said in a statement Monday evening that to his knowledge, the COVID-19 positive individuals stayed aboard while the ship docked in Ketchikan. But he says the remainder of the passengers “disembarked as was originally planned.”

Galloway, the UnCruise spokesperson, declined to say how many people aboard had been identified as close contacts and whether they were in quarantine. She said the company was working with a definition of close contact provided by local health officials and noted that the protocols for vaccinated people differ from those for unvaccinated people.

She said the operator identified the seven positive cases “starting July 23.”

The company says it’s the first time a fully vaccinated guest has tested positive for the disease on its ships.

Barr says that despite the positive tests, the three authorized COVID-19 vaccines are thought to be highly effective at preventing severe cases of the disease.

“The vaccine is very, very good at keeping people out of the hospital and keeping people from dying and getting seriously sick,” he said. “It’s not an iron-clad shield, it won’t necessarily completely prevent you from getting any version of the illness. But it does a very good job at keeping you from getting seriously sick.”

In a statement, UnCruise owner and CEO Dan Blanchard says the seven positive individuals had mild, cold-like symptoms. The company says it’s testing all symptomatic passengers and crew and working with local and state health officials to respond to COVID-19 cases, noting that its decision to cancel this weekend’s cruise was voluntary and not prompted by Coast Guard or health agency requirements. Small cruise vessels, including the entire UnCruise fleet, are not required to comply with federal pandemic rules that apply to larger ships.

In its statement, UnCruise speculates that the Delta variant is behind the cases. Barr says it’s a fair assumption, but lab testing has not confirmed the variant’s presence on the Explorer.

Juneau officials reported one case each on two additional cruise ships Monday: one aboard a large ship, the Celebrity Millennium, and the other on another small ship, the American Constellation. That ship already had an outbreak of 16 passengers on an earlier sailing this season.

This story has been updated with additional information and comments from an UnCruise spokesperson and Ketchikan’s port director.

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