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Fighting a stubborn virus at sea

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Returning passengers receive hand sanitizer as they wait to board

Third in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD M.S. ROTTERDAM—Two men on being introduced to each other automatically shook hands.  “Ooops, sorry about that” said the first one.  “Yes, “ said the second, “force of habit, it seems.”   They walked to a nearby hand sanitizer on board the cruise ship  MS Rotterdam and squirted the liquid on their palms. 

 In official reception lines, the captain, cruise director and other senior officers keep their hands stiffly at their sides to avoid shaking hand after hand.  In buffet lines, attendants wearing plastic gloves serve food to the passengers—rather than allowing the passengers to take it for themselves.  

Hotel manager Robert Versteeg with plaques received by Rotterdam at various ports

“Because of Code Red there were some things we couldn’t do this cruise,” commented the Rotterdam’s Hotel Manager Robert Versteeg.  “For example,  at the black and white ball, ship’s officers normally dance with guests, but this time it wasn’t  hosted by officers,” who feared holding unknown partners’ hands during a dance could make them vulnerable to the virus.  “ If this were a normal cruise, there would have been more activities and parties,” Versteeg said.

Not only is direct contact between human strangers avoided, so too is the use of objects that many people may touch consecutively.  That’s why salt and pepper shakers have been taken off dining room tables.  Gloved waiters instead distribute individual paper packets of the popular spices.   Meanwhile, tables, chairs, banisters, door knobs, public-area telephones, deck chairs and railings are constantly sprayed down with chemicals.  So are the chips in the casino, while decks of cards are continuously replaced, and gamblers are offered plastic gloves if they want them. Sanitation crews spray the inside of tour buses before passengers are permitted to board them.

Such is the routine when “Code Red” is in force aboard the cruise liner M.S. Rotterdam to protect crew and passengers from viruses that penetrate your skin, get into your blood system, and cause gastro-intestinal sicknesses.  

The extra washing, serving and sanitizing has extended the hours of crew members and contract employees aboard the cruise ship well beyond normal, but the alternative is to permit gastro-intestinal viruses to spread among passengers and crew members, potentially sidelining hundreds if not thousands of people aboard the ship with vomiting and diarrhea.

According to Captain Rik Krombeen, the chemicals encase the viruses in a goopy substance, making it difficult for the viruses to be absorbed into the human body through the skin. 

In a formal note to passengers, Krombeen advised: “It is important to understand that the type of GI illness we are seeing on the ship is not life-threatening and does not carry any long-term consequences.  This illness is common worldwide.  In the United States, only the common cold is reported more frequently as a cause of illness.”
When a passenger does come down with these flu-like symptoms, a ship’s doctor visits him or her in the cabin, and quarantines the passenger if he or she has experienced two or more episodes of vomiting or diarrhea.  Quarantine is something like a gilded prison because the passenger can order room service,  look out the window or sliding door to monitor the ship’s course through the open seas, or watch television in addition to the typical response to the sickness, which is sleeping.  Usually the symptoms disappear within 24 to 48 hours.

According to Hotel Manager Versteeg, the quarantine enables shipboard personnel to guard against the effects of a passenger or crew member having a sudden onset of diarrhea or vomiting and being unable to make it to the bathroom.  The germs contained in bodily projectiles can become airborne, making the spread of the disease even easier.

Once quarantined, passengers are asked to fill out a questionnaire listing the foods that they may have been consumed on land.  This information is collated and other passengers are cautioned against consuming similar foods or drinks ashore.  In particular, Cruise Director Joseph Pokorski, on the ship’s public address system,  inveighs against people  accepting free drinks from on-shore tour operators, lest those drinks include ice cubes infected with the virus.   Announcements also point out the inadvisability of eating salads or other foods that may have been washed in water.  The announcements caution against  drinking water that has not been properly distilled and bottled.

While the gastro-intestinal disease has become associated with cruise ships over the last dozen years, Captain Krombeen and Versteeg  both are adamant that the cruise lines are the victims of land-based and airline-based communicable diseases, rather than vice versa.

On a recent cruise in Australian waters, said Versteeg, an epidemiologist traced an outbreak aboard the cruise ship to 20 passengers who had flown on Qantas Airlines.  They had sat within the vicinity of an airline passenger who had vomited on board.  The disease at that point had become airborne, infecting everyone of the 20 passengers without their knowledge before they boarded the cruise ship.

On a February 21-March 8 cruise between Callao, Peru, and San Diego, USA,  on which my wife Nancy and I sailed aboard the Rotterdam, Versteeg said that fewer than 3 percent of the 1,330 passengers were reported down with GIS disease – in contrast to other cruise ships that had touched in South America and had recorded hundreds of cases. The captain, hotel manager and cruise director attribute this statistic to the extra vigilance the Rotterdam crew employed, “almost to the point of being annoying” to head the disease off.

 Most passengers disembarked the ship when it returned to San Diego on March 8, but those who chose to continue on the ship on a South Pacific itinerary were provided tours to the San Diego Zoo or other local attractions.  This procedure assured that there would be minimum interference with a special cleansing crew that came aboard Rotterdam to thoroughly sanitize the ship before the next group of passengers, bound for Tahiti , arrived.
Before departing San Diego, Krombeen said that “Code Red” would remain in effect aboard the Rotterdam until such time as the ship could go two days without any new GIS case arising.

Asked why he believed the Rotterdam had fewer cases than some other cruise ships visiting South America, the Holland America captain responded that  he knew two weeks before arriving in South America that ships on similar  itineraries were reporting numerous GIS incidents.   “We had time to prepare,” he said

Next: Jewish performer makes a cruise ship splash

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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