Just hang in there for two or three more weeks, travel advisors, and things will be better.
That’s the biggest take-away from a press conference yesterday featuring Norwegian Cruise Line’s CEO Frank del Rio and the head of its Health and Safety Committee, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who sits on the board of Pfizer.
Here’s my transcript of what they said, slightly edited for brevity. I took notes in shorthand, which I am pretty good at but a word or two may be off, and I apologize for that.
Frank Del Rio: With the rapid spread of omicron, our industry has once again gotten a lot of press, most of it negative and biased, taking advantage of the fact that we offer robust testing, track cases and diligently report them—something no other part of the industry is required to do.
We’ve had to take into consideration different variables as we move forward. Recently we made the difficult decision to cancel some close-in voyages due to covid-related circumstances. But we are now seeing how quickly it disappears, and we now have to prepare for the next stage of the pandemic. While disruptions are disappointing and frustrating, I firmly believe Covid will not impact our ability to have our full fleet operating by late spring.
I thank the travel advisor community for your support and loyalty. Be proactive, be encouraged. We’ve endured and survived two years of this monster, and now is no time to quit.
Dr. Gottlieb: Most people believe this will be the last major wave of infection; thanks to prior Delta and Omicron infections “you will have a sufficient wall of immunity.”
Its peaking right now on the East Coast certainly. A declining epidemic curve is visible now and that trend is going to continue. A week ago, we were at 400 cases per 100,000 per day, which is an enormous amount of infection; we were probably at 40 or 50 per 100,000 during Delta—but now it’s 200 and continuing to come down. In another two weeks, you are going to see the level of infection come down enough to be evident. The infection will still spread in parts of the country that are two or three weeks behind; they have probably two weeks to go.
The way down looks a lot like the way up—it’s going to take us three weeks to get all the way. We get an update every day in Fairfield County, CT. Last week there were 150 cases; yesterday there were 20 cases.
Pandemics don’t last forever—historically they last two to five years (and that includes 200 years ago, before we had vaccines). We’d expect this would be the final year of the pandemic after four successive waves of infection; I think this is going to be the year it fades into the background and becomes a manageable issue.
Over the summertime we were using vaccines as a tool to prevent infection. But in the setting of Omicron they are probably 25% effective—not nearly as robust as they once were. But that can be restored with a variant-specific vaccine—and I think we’ll have one in the fall. That will be another game-changer. Layer that on top of the likelihood that omicron becomes the more dominant variant, and layer that onto the availability of tools to prevent infection and to keep you from getting too sick, Covid won’t dominate our lives in the future the way it has in the past.
Cruising is a leisure activity that lends itself to implementing measures you can control, and so it can be a safer environment. We have the ability to control who is going in, to monitor the environment with testing the crew, and to give people ready access to therapeutics. The cruise industry lends itself to that. You can carefully calculate and measure the risk and mitigate it. The double edge to that equation is that we are carefully measuring risk—doing routine testing and recording it—so it captures public attention and the attention of the media.
I think in the spring it will be more apparent (that things are improving). Last summer we got to below 10 cases per 100,000 per day, and that’s perceived as a very low level of spread where you relax public health measures. I’d expect that we get back to those levels and probably below them. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back to 5 cases—certainly by February we’ll be down to 15 per day. When you get to this level people aren’t worrying about it nearly as much, and people will be looking forward to reclaiming leisure activities.
We thought that would happen last summer, but then Delta came along—we’re hard-pressed to think something is going to come along this summer that will pierce that narrative. With every corona virus the virus mutates subtly and, eventually, those mutations accumulate in a way that gives it some competitive advantage. Given the immunity in the population, even if it continues to mutate at the current rate, we’d expect that will slow over time—but, even if it continued to mutate, it’s hard to envision another wave of infection.
Could there be another variant? I said Delta would be the last, so I was wrong. But I thought Delta was so infectious that it would dominate and continue to mutate and spread, and as long as they were within the delta lineage we wouldn’t see a major wave. Omicron was a completely new mutation—probably in early 2021 or late 2020 a virus broke off and went into some sequestered environment, either a community of animals or a single individual, and continued to mutate silently for a year. Is there some viral strain of SARS Covid that will reemerge? It’s possible. We’ve seen plenty of variants pop up, but they never take off. It takes a special aggregation of characteristics to be able to spread very rapidly through airborne transmission. But virologists are feeling more confident because of the immunity of the population.
It will end when the prevalence declines, which we are seeing right now. When will psychology firmly change for the vast majority of people? I think we’re already seeing that transition, we probably have two or three more weeks. Two or three weeks. When we get past this big wave of infection, I think consumer confidence will change very quickly. Come Summer, I think it’s going to be a different environment. Come Fall, it will be more like an endemic virus—like other respiratory pathogens we deal with in the wintertime. It might be like the flu. In a bad case scenario, it is like the flu and you see flu-like prevalence, but I think there’s a real possibility the prevalence will be less than the flu. Corona viruses don’t usually mutate like the flu, and immunity from corona viruses lasts longer than the flu. The risk frankly to next year might not be from coronavirus but from the flu. It looks like flu prevalence is going to be low this year, and at some point we’re going to have more flu. But we have the tools to deal with that.
I am going to cruise this summer. I’ve been very cautious, I have young children, but I feel very confident there’s going to be low prevalence, below 10 cases.
I don’t think we can plan for the tail risk, but some virologists who’ve been right about how this virus would surprise us are more confident that the base case is the good scenario.
Frank Del Rio: We’re in the middle of Wave Season where a disproportionate amount of bookings take place. Typically we’re selling summer Europe, summer Alaska into the fall—can travel advisors sell those this summer with confidence?
Dr. Gottleib: The most likely scenario is we will have very low prevalence this summer and fall, and people will want to get back to what they enjoy. I think consumers are going to start planning again. Can we have confidence they will be secure? It’s hard to handicap these things with certainty, but the overwhelming likelihood is yes. Corona viruses typically circulate late January, February. The black swan is another Omicron, a new variant that pierces all the immunity we’ve acquired. But that becomes harder; it’s far less likely this summer than last summer (in the US and in Europe). You worry about developing countries that don’t have high rates of vaccination; frankly, I worry about countries that have had very little spreads because they’ve been focused on keeping it out, like China, so they don’t have naturally acquired immunity. But Western Europe looks very much like the US—and the UK is probably better than the US.
Del Rio: Hopefully, after today travel advisors can be confident you are selling a cruise experience that puts health and wellness above all else. Rest assured, our brands put health and safety first; we fight the good fight and our vigilance and commitment will not stop. We’ve lived through one of the most difficult tests our generation has ever faced. Every generation before us has had to fight wars—this pandemic has been our war, a war that has tested out mettle. I am 100% confident we are going to win, and win soon. We are almost there. Three more weeks!
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.