Another Norovirus Outbreak Befouls the Cruise Industry

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

sick cruise passengerThe 2014 cruise season hasn’t been off to a very good start. So far this year, the cruise industry has suffered at least six overboard accidents, several sexual assault crimes, and hundreds of Norovirus outbreaks. In fact, a record for the worst Norovirus outbreak in cruise ship history was set this year aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas, with over 600 people falling ill with the infamous stomach bug. Norovirus is actually very common on cruise ships due to the fact that the virus spreads easily in confined spaces. And what could possibly be more confined than a cruise ship sailing in the middle of the ocean with few windows to help with ventilation?

The cruise ship lawyers at our firm have heard mixed thoughts regarding Norovirus on ships, with many wondering if outbreaks are just bound to happen given the confined quarters on a vessel or if they are the result of a lack of sanitation. Truth is, it’s probably a little bit of both. On the one hand, the starting point of a Norovirus outbreak is often a sick passenger who doesn’t even realize they are ill until their symptoms are showing. Even then, Norovirus symptoms can be as mild as a mild case of nausea, which means those who are infected may not even think they are truly contagious. Many chalk it up to just food poisoning or a sensitive stomach and continue with their day as usual. Unfortunately, since Norovirus is extremely contagious, the illness can spread quickly, leading to a huge outbreak.

On the other hand, there are times when the outbreak is the result of the cruise line’s own negligence in keeping a sanitized environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conduct announced inspections on cruise ships that call on U.S. ports twice a year to check for lack of sanitation and score them accordingly. A passing score is anything above an 86. Unfortunately, many lines fail miserably.  Many vessels fail to sanitize common areas, such as dining halls or bathrooms, leaving passengers to come in contact with the virus. Then, if some passengers do display symptoms of the virus, cruise lines often fail to properly quarantine them, allowing the virus to continue to spread.

Given the fact that cruise line negligence may or may not play a role in the spread of Norovirus on a ship, we are left to wonder what the cause of the cruise industry’s most recent outbreak may be – or if there is even an actual outbreak. Our cruise attorneys have come to learn of a Norovirus outbreak aboard Holland America’s MS Maasdam. At least two passengers have reported symptoms associated with the gastrointestinal disease, but Holland America has yet to confirm whether or not there is truth to these statements.

One passenger turned to Facebook to post about the alleged outbreak, claiming, “MS Maasdam has been fighting NOROVIRUS pretty much most of the cruise from Rio to Ft Lauderdale. RED ALERT.”

Another passenger claiming to be a physician also posted on the social media site, saying “I am on the sick Holland America Maasdam which has had Norovirus ever since the departing Rio and won’t be scheduled to be back in Fort Lauderdale until the end of the month. I’m getting tired of hearing the Captain blame the passengers for the spread of the disease. As a physician, I’ve clearly noted that the disease is passed by vectors such as cruise cards, bar staff and wait staff never washing their hands, and the tables and chairs being cleaned with the same rag. Captain it’s not the passengers [it’s] your staff.”

The Maasdam is scheduled to return to its home port in Fort Lauderdale on March 28, so we have yet to see whether the alleged outbreak will be confirmed or denied. Usually, a ship won’t even have to return to its home port in order for an outbreak to be confirmed. Reports usually emerge right away. Could this be just an old fashioned case of the boy crying wolf?

In the past 21 years, the Maasdam has reportedly failed the CDC inspection twice, once in 1994 and then again in 1997. For the majority of the time since then, the Maasdam has maintained scores well above 90.

Additionally, the last time Norovirus was reported aboard the Maasdam was back in 2011. So, from what we’ve seen, it appears as though the ship has maintained a pretty sanitary environment for passengers.

Unfortunately, Norovirus is just one of those illnesses that can spread like wildfire. Sometimes, outbreaks are inevitable. However, if you are planning on vacationing aboard a cruise ship, there are a few ways you can minimize your chances of getting sick. Wash your hands as frequently as possible and carry sanitizing napkins, gels and spray on your person at all times if possible. Several cruise ships already provide sanitation stations, but some do not, so it’s better to be safe and sorry. You should also sanitize your cabin, even if it was cleaned by a crew member. Norovirus can live on any surface, including your cabin’s doorknobs, phone, toilet handle, and light switches. Additionally, it is wise to keep your toothbrushes covered and tucked safely away since they can easily be contaminated with Norovirus as well.