Disturbing Revelations About Cruise Ship Norovirus Outbreaks

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

NorovirusCurious about the pesky virus that has been terrorizing the stomachs of thousands of cruise ship guests for years? Our maritime lawyers have the answers you’ve been waiting for.

It seems that hardly a month goes by before we have to hear about the dreaded Norovirus striking cruise ships once more. A cruise ship facing a Norovirus outbreak is a sad sight indeed. While the virus is seldom deadly, it can ruin a vacation. Guests who are stricken with the bug are usually quarantined in their cabins and left to suffer with diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps alone. Forget sunbathing, swimming, or enjoying your ports of call while sick with Norovirus. You might as well kiss your cruise vacation goodbye.

If you are a frequent cruiser, you may not be a stranger to Norovirus and its effects. You may already know that the virus is highly contagious and is acquired by close contact with an infected person, from eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, or from touching a contaminated surface. But did you know that the virus can incapacitate its victims for days to up to a week? And did you know that severe symptoms of the virus result in anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations in a given year?

But why exactly does the cruise industry tend to be so prone to Norovirus? Stomach bugs can be present at any public location, can’t they? Why don’t we hear about Norovirus outbreaks in shopping malls or in schools? The answer to that lies in the fact that cruise ships are extremely confined. The virus is prone to spread quickly in tight, confined quarters and where there are lots of people to infect. Since ships do not have the same kinds of ventilation systems a land-based facility would and given the fact that thousands of guests are on a ship at any given point, gathered in close proximity, the virus has the perfect conditions to spread.

And that’s not all. Cruise line buffets are also excellent places to spread the virus. Guests are all trying to shove their way through to get that last piece of cake and may cough on each other or the food itself. Also, the virus can be easily spread at a buffet if these areas aren’t kept clean, which, unfortunately, they often aren’t. You’d be surprised to learn just how many cruise lines fail health inspections – and exactly how badly they fail. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires that all cruise ships maintain sanitary conditions, as well as requires all cruise ships docking in U.S. ports to undergo two random health inspections, many cruise ships continuously fail. Some lines have been called out for allowing crew members who handle food to go without wearing gloves or hair nets, while others have been caught with old, unsanitized and even rusty food equipment.

Additionally, the virus can spread when crew members who handle food preparation are sick themselves. The CDC recommends that individuals abstain from preparing food while sick and wait to prepare food for at least three days after symptoms stop. Many agencies have laws in place that require workers to refrain from handling food within 48 hours of recovering from Norovirus. But, unfortunately, cruise ships don’t always monitor the health of their workers. Sometimes crew members do not report their symptoms and other times, they are forced by the cruise line that employs them to work while sick. A U.S.A. Today report found that one in five restaurant workers admitted to working sick while suffering from symptoms of either vomiting or diarrhea. That’s pretty disturbing.

Crew members should all be required to wash their hands and uphold strict sanitation practices – should being the operative word. If cruise operators can’t even stop assaults, thefts, and rapes on board ships, how are they going to keep track of how often a crew member washes their hands? Cruise operators should also provide for adequate sick days so crew will not have to worry about having to work while sick. Unfortunately, until cruise staff are offered better sick leave options, paid sick days, and are encouraged to report to work only when healthy, Norovirus will likely continue to be a problem.

Here are some other not-so-fun facts about Norovirus you may not know, but should definitely be aware of.

  • Norovirus is very powerful: A small amount of the virus can go a long way to making people sick. The amount of virus that could fit on the head of a pin has the power to sicken approximately 1,000 people.
  • Norovirus is hard to kill: Think you’re safe from Norovirus if you use hand sanitizers? Think again. Normal alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t always kill the virus. Hand washing, however, does work, so take a tip from experienced maritime lawyers and wash your hands frequently while on a ship.
  • Norovirus is extremely resilient: The virus can survive in the freezer and in temperatures above 140 degrees, temperatures typically deemed sanitary for food handlers and restaurants. What does this mean for cruise passengers? Avoid buffets, avoid undercooked or raw foods, and try to use plastic utensils as often as possible.
  • Norovirus can be present before you show symptoms: Did you know that you can carry Norovirus for up to two weeks after you are sick? Did you know you can be contagious even before you become sick? For this reason, it is important to practice careful sanitary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Though cruise lines should take measures to keep the risk of Norovirus spread to a minimum, as we’ve just seen, many do not and allow both sick crew and sick passengers to propagate the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, cruise passenger ticket contracts sometimes make it difficult for passengers to seek reimbursement for a trip ruined by illness, so if you get sick, chances are you lost your money and are not going to get anything from the cruise line. Yet, it’s still wise to speak with a maritime lawyer because if there is a huge outbreak of Norovirus that stems from the cruise line’s own failure to abide by industry safety policies, there may be some   compensation to be had.

However for now, the best prevention measures cruise passenger should follow are to frequently wash their hands well with soap and water, when in long lines keep some space between yourself and the others in line with you, after touching hand rails and other surfaces that can host Norovirus apply ample amounts of hand sanitizer and don’t touch your face or mouth until you have washed your hands with soap and water and avoid anyone who appears to not be healthy.