According to The Washington Post, the University of Arizona detected a coronavirus outbreak in one of its dorms, after everyone in the dorm had passed antigen tests before moving in. They found two infectious students that had previously tested Negative. All that needed to be done was monitoring the wastewater in each dorm for infectious feces.
It ends up that feces “shed” not only onto your hands where they can be transported to your face (hence the emphasis on washing your hands), but also into the wastewater that come from flushing toilets. Testing samples of wastewater coming from the sewage lines connecting cabins on ships can identify groups of cabins that have infectious guests or crew. Then, these persons can be given individual COVID-19 tests, even if they tested Negative at the beginning of the cruise, and they show no signs of being sick. If guests and crew use their own bathrooms when they poop, new cases of coronavirus can be detected without inconveniencing or alarming anyone.
The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and Syracuse University have also embraced this process, as have hundreds of wastewater treatment facilities throughout the United States and the world. This is a highly cost-effective way of determining the extent of infection in a small area. Thus far, I haven’t seen anything written about cruise lines also adopting this practice, but it may be a “secret weapon” of which guests and journalists are mostly unaware.
Using Wristbands for Contact Tracing
When the identity of infected guests is determined, contact tracking can be initiated automatically if ships also have contact-tracing bracelets similar to the “MSC For Me” bracelets and app described in this column several weeks ago. These bracelets, in addition to opening up cabin doors, also record where on the ship a guest goes, how much time they spend there, and which other guests were in proximity to them for a certain amount of time.
If Ms. Smith tests Positive for coronavirus, after infected poops are found in the sewer line connected to her stateroom, MSC for Me wristbands can tell you the names of guests and crew who were her proximity for at least 15 minutes. These guests and staff members can be immediately tested and, if any of them test Positive, their contacts can be identified and tested.
While a sensitive person will have to sit down with the infected individuals and tell them that they have tested Positive, this will be less burdensome and more accurate than having them tell a contact tracer everyone that they have been in contact with since the cruise began. Contact tracing will no longer be an imperfect and stress-laden activity.
Also, because the system can timestamp everyone’s location, it should also be possible to establish where the outbreak started and how similar outbreaks can be avoided. If guests are hovering around the dessert display in the main dining room before ordering at their tables, this can be noted and dealt with.
Also, if the infected individuals can quickly be quarantined on-and-off the ship, it’s possible that cruises won’t have to be cancelled after a few days.
In addition to passively recording the IDs of people who are in a room, the system should be able to count the number of people in a proximity to a guest and signal if safe social distancing cannot be maintained. This should be able to light up a sign saying that a room is full. When some people leave the area, the sign should be able to be turned off so that other guests can enter. I’m not aware of any systems that can currently do this, but speaking as a former systems analyst, this is well within the capabilities of systems that collect data in real-time in a central location.
In the evening, similar signs or smartphone messages can direct guests to the elevator banks and stairways that are the least crowded. That way, crew members will have a much easier time managing traffic and they will not be considered the “bad guys.”
All these technologies are already being used and involve “off-the-shelf” components. Sewage lines already have access points, and alert bands (ID bracelets), which can record locations and times and forward data to a central location, are already widespread. Some alert bands, which are being sold to businesses and schools, can also vibrate when you come within six feet of someone wearing a similar band. The Ottogee Wrist Band is advertised as follows:
Our BLE wristband lasts for up to 7 days, is USB rechargeable and provides a gently haptic vibration feedback when in proximity of another band (think of a notification vibration on your cellphone). No need for cell phones or apps of any kind. Simply deploy the wristbands … and they will [tell you when they are within] 6 feet of each other with a gentle vibration.
Slowing down the virus outbreak requires us to know who the people with the virus interacted with… We cannot be on lock down forever; and contact tracing will get more essential throughout the outbreak cycle. Beating this virus will require us to know who the people with the virus interacted with… and proactively isolate them.”
Both the wastewater testing and the wristbands have the potential for making cruises safer and less expensive, with little bother to the passengers and crew. They can also be rolled out quickly. Done in concert with each other, they can make a cruise the safest and most pleasurable way to travel.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have sailed on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships on more than 40 cruises. Steve’s company, Cruises & Cameras, LLC, partners with LUXE Travel, a FROSCH Company, and the Signature Travel Network. Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he’s earned two certificates in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s using what he has learned in six courses, along with his earlier training in measurement and statistics, to help his clients deal with the realities of the pandemic. His most recent book is How to Plan Your Next and BEST Cruise (Amazon, 2019, 186 pages). His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.