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Crew Will Scrub Ship Top to Bottom in Hopes of Killing Virus

November 24, 2002|Ken Thomas | Associated Press Writer

MIAMI — A cruise ship longer than two football fields is getting a scrubbing from hundreds of workers who are wiping down Bibles, washing linens, steam-cleaning cushions and chairs, and disinfecting light switches, doorknobs and handrails.

The Holland America cruise line hopes to kill a virus that has been sickening cruise ship passengers by the hundreds in recent weeks.

More than 500 people aboard the Amsterdam have contracted a contagious stomach virus on four successive voyages over the last month despite repeated attempts to disinfect the ship. At least two other U.S.-based cruise ships -- one of them operated by Disney -- have reported similar outbreaks that sickened nearly 500 others in recent months.

Such cases are rare in an industry that will serve an estimated 7.4 million passengers in 2002. The Amsterdam is the second U.S.-based cruise ship to be pulled from service this year, and two others have been taken out in the last four years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nevertheless, a cruise, where hundreds of passengers and crew mingle in close quarters for days or weeks, can provide ideal conditions for the Norwalk-like virus to spread. The virus is spread through food and water and close contact with infected people or things they have touched. It can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting for up to two days.

"It's a perfect environment for spreading a virus that is so infectious as the Norwalk virus is," said David Forney, chief of the CDC vessel sanitation program.

The outbreaks are not expected to pose a threat to the cruise lines, which have largely rebounded since the terrorist attacks, said industry analyst Joe Hovorka of Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Certainly if they see a deficiency somewhere they're going to fix it," he said. "They understand that this is not good PR."

The 780-foot Amsterdam returned to Port Everglades, near Fort Lauderdale, on Thursday and will be out of service until Dec. 1.

As soon as the last passenger disembarked, nearly 600 workers -- including porters, casino workers and dancers -- donned plastic gloves, toted water buckets and began to scour every surface within reach. They face a daunting task of cleaning a ship with 10 passenger decks, 690 staterooms and 747 seats in the La Fontaine dining room.

Workers will also wash linens and sheets, throw out pens and pencils, clean thousands of plastic poker chips in dishwashers, and wipe down nearly 800 Bibles, TV remote controls and clock radios with a chlorine cleanser.

Forney said fabrics will be steam-cleaned to temperatures of 170 degrees to kill the bug.

Holland America said 76 people developed symptoms associated with the Norwalk-like virus during the Amsterdam's 10-day voyage that ended Thursday.

As a precaution during the cruise, salt and pepper shakers were removed from dinner tables. Passengers rubbed elbows instead of shaking hands. Jacuzzis were turned off. Passengers were not allowed to help themselves at the buffet or salad bar; crew members in plastic gloves served them.

Shelly Drucker, 67, of Boynton Beach, has sailed five times with Holland America and remained healthy during the Amsterdam's latest cruise. He said he plans to return, even though this time wasn't as much fun.

"It was a pain in the neck," he said. "But they tried. What else could they do?"

Holland America pulled another ship, the Ryndam, from service for a week in July to disinfect it. The vessel had 388 reported cases of a Norwalk-like virus. A lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed in Canada in August on behalf of Ryndam passengers.

In addition, at least 175 passengers and 12 crew members on a Disney cruise ship have become infected with a contagious stomach virus, the CDC said. Disney officials ordered the ship cleaned and disinfected at sea.

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