Norwalk Says Sayonara?

December 12, 2002
Even as Norwalk Virus’ hold on cruise ships has begun to ebb, P&O Cruises’ Oceana, the only ship to date still struggling with an outbreak, skipped a scheduled port-of-call at St. Maarten Tuesday. Oceana, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently reports that 269 out of 1,862 passengers and 24 out of 871 crew have experienced symptoms of Norwalk Virus, was slated to anchor at St. Maarten, transporting passengers to the island via tender boat. But concerns from island officials about the possibility of ill passengers spreading Norwalk to on-island residents and tourists resulted in a prolonged clearing process. The process, alas, took long enough to make ship’s officers realize that, with the added time handicap of tender transport (more regular cruise ship visitors to the island had occupied all of St. Maarten’s actual dock positions) time had become limited. “Due to this it was decided that arranging for passengers to land would have been ineffective as it would not have allowed our holidaymakers any time to enjoy the port of call,” says P&O’s Bronwen Griffiths. On its part, St. Maarten government communications officer Roddy Heyliger issued a statement that defended the delay, quoting an official saying “we needed to ascertain what the situation was on the ship, how many persons were ill etc. After this assessment was made, the Lt. Governor as Chairman of the Emergency Operations Center, was advised to require the ship to remain at anchor; fully restrict all known ill passengers who have come down with symptoms of the virus within the past 72-hours to remain onboard; and to allow passengers who have not shown any signs of illness to disembark if they so desired,” Jorien Lucas-Wuite explained on Tuesday afternoon. P&O’s Griffiths, too, emphasizes that “Oceana has not been denied entry into any port on its current itinerary.” As we reported earlier this week, the CDC is attempting to communicate the facts -- as opposed to the hysterical hype -- about Norwalk Virus and its recent assault on cruise passengers to port health officials in the Caribbean. The CDC’s Dave Forney said today he has heard of no other (new) problems relating to cruise ships in Caribbean ports-of-call. “We have had multiple discussions with various port health officials and tried to explain again what the illness has been,” Forney said during a q&a session following a CDC press conference. “After they understood that it has not become an issue.” Meanwhile, the CDC offered a wrap-up on existing investigations into Holland America’s Amsterdam, Disney’s Magic and Carnival’s Fascination. In a nutshell, Forney says, Amsterdam’s first voyage since benching the ship resulted in ten out of 1,190 passengers and two out of 577 crew reporting symptoms; the CDC is satisfied that the outbreak is over and is requiring no more reporting. The latest statistics on Disney Magic, on its first cruise since it the company pulled the ship out of service for a week, show that 25 passengers out of 2,153 (no crew has succumbed) have experienced symptoms and is reporting daily to the CDC. Finally, Carnival’s Fascination, now on its third voyage following the first outbreak, has reported just six passengers and seven crew with symptoms, which is an appropriate level, Forney says, “for that vessel -- no follow-up is planned.” Is the worst of Norwalk’s plague of cruise ships truly over? “We would hope on a daily basis to say the outbreak is over,” Forney says, “but there’s no way for us to predict.” Passengers in coming months should expect to see cruise staff operating at the highest levels of sanitation and precautionary strategies on an ongoing basis with the hope of preventing another outbreak.