New Norovirus Outbreak Sweeps Through Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Leaving 600 Passengers Sick

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

sick cruise passengerFor the past few weeks, maritime authorities have been focusing on the lack of proper crime reporting within the cruise industry and the shockingly high number of overboard accidents. Six people have gone missing from cruise ships already this year, and we haven’t even hit February yet. Our cruise ship accident lawyers have blogged about the tragic series of man overboard accidents and it also recently came to our attention that the vast majority of cruise companies have yet to incorporate all the regulations detailed in the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) of 2010. Among the regulations lines have failed to implement are improved emergency and evacuation training and, quite ironically, a system that will help detect when a passenger or crew member goes overboard.

Now, cruise lines have had well over three years to implement these policies, but out of 15 regulations, only 11 have been carried out. In the same amount of time, dozens of new ships have been released, each bigger and better than its predecessor. Sadly, maritime safety continues to sit on the backburner, and apparently, so does sanitation.

With all this talk of overboard accidents and crimes, not too much focus has been placed on a vessel’s sanitation policies, which often come into question when there’s a Norovirus outbreak. It’s actually been quite a while since we last heard of any Norovirus incidents onboard a cruise ship, but alas, all good things must come to an end. A Royal Caribbean ship has just reported nearly 600 passengers have come down with the infamous cruise ship stomach bug. Even for a Norovirus outbreak, 600 is pretty high. With so many people sick, this can only mean that either crew members failed to detect the outbreak right away, failed to quarantine those who exhibited symptoms, or failed to sanitize areas that those stricken with the bug contaminated. Most likely, a combination of all of these factors.

We don’t have too much information about the outbreak yet, but according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), last week, roughly 281 passengers had fallen ill aboard the Explorer of the Seas. By Friday, an additional 22 crew members also came down with Norovirus. Now, there are nearly 600 people who are sick. What is going on aboard this cruise ship?!

CDC agents are working diligently to determine the source of the illness. Health officials boarded the vessel on Sunday while it was docked in St. Thomas and took samples. Once the new tally of victims revealed that 577 passengers and 49 crew members were sick, officials decided to cancel the itinerary early in order to prevent the further spread of the gastrointestinal disease. With a total of 3,050 passengers and 1,165 crew members, we definitely agree that this is the right call.

According to passenger Joseph Angelillo, who spoke with CNN on Sunday, one of the Norovirus victims, even some of the ship’s activities and shows had to be cancelled because entertainers were getting sick.

He explained his symptoms were a lot like food poisoning and lasted for a little less than 24 hours. However, Norovirus can take three days to pass. That is, in a healthy adult. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, and usually, do not require any medicine to dissipate. Victims just need to remain very well-hydrated and relax so their condition doesn’t worsen. Norovirus is more inconvenient than anything else, but there are times when it can be deadly.

Children and the elderly are most likely to suffer the most when stricken with Norovirus, but complications can arise with any patient. According  to the CDC, Norovirus is responsible for 500-800 deaths a year in the United States alone. Worldwide, that number reaches well into the thousands.

The CDC imposes what is known as the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) in order to prevent and control the spread of this illness on cruise ships. Each ship that calls on a U.S. port and features a foreign itinerary and which holds over 13 passengers is subject to two random inspections a year. CDC officials will conduct an investigation of the vessel and grade the ship based on how well it follows sanitation practices. An 86 or higher is considered passing, but the public would be shocked to learn just how many cruise ships actually fail their inspections.

Year after year, cruise lines are well aware they will be subject to CDC inspections, which is why it baffles our cruise lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. just how some of these major lines can be so negligent when it comes to keeping ships sanitized. One would think out of all the safety procedures that lines must undertake, cleaning and disinfesting a ship should be the easiest. Especially with ships knowing they will be inspected without a doubt.

The worst part about Norovirus is the fact that it spreads extremely fast. The virus can be transmitted from eating or drinking liquids contaminated with the virus, contact with contaminated surfaces, or having direct contact with those who are sick, such as in sharing food or utensils.

When word of a possible Norovirus outbreak is discovered on a ship, the crew must take serious precautions to contain it. Those who are ill must be quarantined to their cabins (boring but better for everyone in the long run) and crews must take extra care to prevent the spread of the illness. Buffets must be closed down, plastic utensils must be passed out, and other safety measures.

Though scientists are working on a Norovirus vaccine, as of now, there’s no way to medically treat the illness. The best way to reduce your chances of getting sick is to wash your hands frequently and avoid those who have been contaminated. Easier said than done onboard a cruise ship though.

Since cruise ships are basically floating hotels where those onboard have nowhere to escape from the virus, it’s a lot easier for Norovirus to spread. Hopefully the CDC gets to the bottom of what caused the outbreak and contains it.

We haven’t heard from Royal Caribbean as to whether they are going to issue some form of refund or credit for victims, but since most Norovirus patients are confined to their cabins and lose out on valuable vacation time, it’s only fair to compensate those who suffered as well as those who did not get sick, but whose itineraries were still cut short due to the outbreak.