Ship Happens – The Impact of Norovirus Outbreaks from a Crew Member’s Perspective

<img src="The Calm Before.jpg" alt="Calm Waters" />It happens every year around this time – as colds,  flu, and stomach viruses start to spread land side, these microorganisms find their way onboard and mutate into gastrointestinal pandemics. In the wake of the most recent GI casualty, the Crown Princess, I thought I would share my experiences with this nasty little bug from the perspective of a working Crew Member.

Noroviruses are actually a group of viruses that cause inflammation of the stomach and large intestine lining (gastroenteritis), and are commonly referred to by the cruise ship industry as NLV, Norwalk Virus or GI. The virus can be transmitted through food, however, the most common cause on ships comes from touching an object or surface that has been infected with the virus. The virus is a hearty and highly contagious, which is why it thrives in concentrated areas where large groups congregate, such as cruise ships, hotels, and day care centers. NLV infection can be air born (if someone vomits on or near you…ewww..), but is usually contracted by touching infected surfaces. The illness is characterized by violent episodes of simultaneous vomiting and diarr…well, you get the picture. Once a ship has been infected, the virus is very difficult to eradicate. If guests or crew show symptoms of this virus they are instructed to remain in their cabin to avoid contagion and notify the infirmary immediately. A nurse is then dispatched to the cabin.

I have contracted NLV twice and been on cruise ships suffering the NLV outbreak several times. My most memorable and harrowing encounter with the illness happened two seasons ago, as I was wrapping up the Mediterranean itinerary and looking forward to the last cruise of my contract.  It would be a long one – 17-day – and it included just 5 European ports, followed by a 7-day Atlantic crossing, a quick stop in the Bahamas until my final destination of Tampa. I was finally in the homestretch!

Just around this time the company sent out an all-points bulletin warning us of the outbreak of the Norovirus on cruise ships sailing in Europe. Ships across several fleets were suffering from serious outbreaks and had implemented Code Red Protocol. Code Red goes into effect when an abnormally high percentage of guests and/or crew have reported symptoms of a GI infection,  and involves meticulous sanitization protocols.

<img src="Waves.jpg" alt="Big Swells" />

We had made it the entire season without a serious outbreak, but during our final call to Spain and Portugal, our ship succumbed. Apparently a group traveling overland prior to joining the ship brought the virus onboard along with their brandy and Lladro.

With seven cases of GI reported overnight the ship immediately instated Code Red protocols. Code Red procedures are implemented to kill the virus and prevent cross contamination, and include the following:

  • The isolation of those infected for a minimum of 24 hours (for crewmembers it’s 48-72 hours)
  • Suspension of any self-service in the restaurants
  • Sanitization and removal of all board games, cleaning and sanitizing of writing utensils prior to redistribution
  • Staff and crew standing outside of the restaurants with giant tubs of Purel making everyone who entered sanitize their hands
  • The most daunting task of all, which was the super-sanitization of public areas by the staff and crew every night after hours.

Needless to say this is exhausting and backbreaking work and every single crewmember was assigned an area to help disinfect. I can’t complain on my own behalf—my cleaning duties were miniscule in comparison to an already overworked housekeeping, culinary and beverage department. We all emerged between 11pm and 1am with our respective buckets of Virox solution and microfiber cloths, slathering the walls, furniture glass, brass and marble with this noxious stuff. Each night when we finished cleaning the Chief Housekeeper would swab a random area and test it on the spot for bacteria levels. If any bacteria was still detected the entire area had to be disinfected again.

Oddly enough the Entertainment team were the rising stars of super-sanitization! I guess all those odd interim jobs, waiting tables, housekeeping, nannying, etc., proved themselves useful in hindsight!

And still new cases of the GI illness were reported daily!

There were very few crew members among the fallen. I became well-versed at walking through public areas as if I had no digits, pushing doors open with my elbows, pressing elevator buttons with my knuckles – let’s not forget about the compulsive hand washing! Upon further investigation  it was discovered that several guests had gotten sick and not reported it because they didn’t want to spend their vacation in isolation – so the crew was working into the wee hours of the morning, sterilizing the vessel – only to have it re-contaminated by selfish clods with dirty hands, perpetuating the cycle of contagion.

By day 5 of the crossing we arrived in the Bahamas. We were still in Code Red and just 2 days away from our arrival in Tampa. The CDC came onboard to inspect our disease prevention measures. Would they even allow us back into the country with this outbreak (Oh please God, I’ve got a plane to catch!)? They were very impressed with our work and agreed that the ship was sick because infected guests had not been in compliance with some very simple directives.

I was allowed to disembark the ship in Tampa, as planned. The head nurse during the outbreak disembarked as well. When we arrived at the airport in the late morning she made a B-line for the bar.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and warm water to stay healthy – this is true anywhere really, but crucial for cruise ship passengers and crew. Use the hand sanitizer stations at your disposal and, please, if you have contracted NLV, follow the instructions given to you by the medical team and respectfully remain in your cabin until you are past the point of contagion.

<img src="Smooth_Sailing.jpg" alt="Calm Water" />

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