An online check of your cruise ship’s health history, especially if you like to save money on last-minute bookings, can save your vacation from a disaster like norovirus.
There are certain words you never want to hear on a cruise ship. Norovirus. Quarantine. Code Red. On this year’s Christmas Week cruise from San Diego to the Mexican Riviera, I heard all of them.
Norovirus may sound rare and exotic, but it is in fact the world’s most common gastrointestinal infection. Everything about it, from the way it gets into your system to what it does to you once it gets there, is just nasty.
Someone takes a trip to the toilet without washing their hands afterward. You come along and touch what they touch, then touch your now-infected hand to your mouth, or swallow the viral culprit if they had a hand in preparing your food. That’s it. You’ve got it.
A day or so later, it’s got you. Next stop: non-stop diarrhea to go along with everything from chills and fever to aching joints, muscle spasms, and what one medical Web site calls “explosive vomiting.” Dehydration is a real — and in some cases, dangerous — possibility.
A NASTY LITTLE BUG
Norovirus periodically makes headlines when it takes hold in certain businesses and sickens its customers. Diners at Chipotle can tell you all about that. And it is really notorious when it strikes cruise ships.
Which brings us to Holland America Line and their cruise ship, the MS Veendam. She’s one of Holland America’s older ships, having been built in 1996. As today’s cruisers go, she’s a relatively small one, with room for 1,350 passengers (compare that with Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which can accommodate that many guests on four of its 16 passengers decks). She underwent a major overhaul in 2009.
Five days before Christmas, my wife and I left San Diego aboard Veendam for a week-long cruise to the Mexican Riviera — Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Three days in port, three days at sea. A nice, relaxing little cruise to destinations with which we were already well familiar.
We had scarcely settled into our cabin when the announcements started coming over the public-address system about an outbreak of norovirus aboard ship from the previous cruise, completed just that morning.
We’d already spotted the white plastic stands for dispensing hand sanitizer scattered about on every deck, now pretty much de rigeur throughout the cruise industry. We’d seen them before and used them before. No big deal. We heard and heeded the captain’s admonitions to wash our hand soften with soap and hot water, and figured that would be the end of it.
As it turned out, it was only the beginning.
For the first few days, the captain’s PA announcements told of continuing cases of norovirus illness on board (although he never once said how many), followed by exhortations to wash our hands often and avoid using the ship’s public restrooms.
Anyone who came down with this bug was quarantined in their cabin until the ship’s doctor and nurses were satisfied they had recovered. House arrest at sea, more or less.
Up in the Lido buffet, where passengers could serve themselves nearly all buffet food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were met by a very different sight on the second day and for the rest of the cruise.
Crewmembers wearing plastic gloves now handled everything for you. And when I say “everything”… you had to ask them for salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce. You couldn’t draw your own glass of water.
When I asked one why this was being done, his only response was, “We’re on Code Red now.”
ALL POSSIBLE MEANS
I soon learned what a Code Red looked like. For the rest of the week, the 368 men and women of the Veendam crew practically killed themselves trying to put the norovirus bug in check.
In addition the extreme measures at meal service, every fixture, every handrail, even the desk space inside our cabin, was wiped down with disinfectant — in some cases, several times a day.
They did all of this shorthanded because, as we would learn later, they were getting sick, too.
Waiting for you at various points around the ship were spinning machines into which you put your arms halfway to your elbows to automatically wash your hands with soap and warm water. Kind of like a human car wash. You couldn’t check out books from the ship’s expansive library. You couldn’t check out movies to play in the DVD player in your cabin.
After the first few days, the captain’s announcements spoke optimistically of fewer reported cases of norovirus, until by Friday, Christmas Day, it seemed inevitable that he would pronounce the Veendam bug-free.
That never happened, not even on the morning of our return to San Diego two days later.
There were other things we noticed, like the white bath towels, standard in all hotels whether on land or at sea, that looked less than white although they looked freshly washed. Bleach clearly hadn’t been used in washing them. Why not?
BLEACH ON THE ROCKS
A possibly answer came at breakfast when I took a drink of water — and caught the distinct smell of bleach in my glass.
When the Veendam returned to San Diego on Dec. 27, an investigator from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was waiting.
In all, 84 people fell victim to norovirus on that cruise — 73 passengers, 11 crew.
The Veendam is one of two Holland America cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks in 2015. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also had norovirus turn up on two of their ships, as did the high-end luxury cruise line Oceania. Entry-level Carnival, which has had its own norovirus problems in the past…has been clean in 2015.
In all, 12 cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks to the CDC this year as of this writing, an increase of three after only nine the two previous years.
All of this comes after a CDC health inspection in September gave Veendam a perfect score of 100, one of seven Holland America ships — and 32 industry-wide — to get perfect marks from the CDC. The same ship notoriously failed its CDC inspection in 2012, something that seldom happens.
Will I ever take another cruise after this experience? Almost certainly. But on my next cruise booking, I’ll be asking more — and different — questions.
HOW CLEAN IS YOUR CRUISE SHIP?
“Trust, but verify.” — President Ronald Reagan
Want to get an idea how sanitary your cruise ship is before you book? There are ways to find out, the most important of which you’ll find on the CDC Web site.
The Vessel Sanitation Program is the CDC’s ongoing effort to monitor the cleanliness and health safety of the cruise industry. Inspectors look for unsanitary conditions and practices aboard ships and grades them, the top score being 100.
A score of 85 pr below is considered a fail. (And I thought my math teachers were tough…)
General info about norovirus, updates on current norovirus outbreaks, how the CDC inspects ships. All that and more, you’ll find on the Vessel Sanitary Program. But the link that may interest you most is the Advanced Cruise Ship Inspection Search.
On this page, you can find the results of the most recent CDC inspection of every cruise ship and cruise line. Just select the individual ship or cruise line you want to check, choose a date (to keep things simple, I’d just select “All Dates,” choose the range of scores you want to see, then hit “search.”
The results will speak for themselves.
You also can check with ships reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, but go to CDC first. If you see something there that gives you questions about a ship’s sanitation, call up the cruise line and give them a chance to explain and answer your questions.
One of those questions should be about the ship’s refund policy if you’re sickened and quarantined as a result of a norovirus or other illness outbreak on board.
If you don’t like the answers you get, politely end the call…and then choose a different cruise ship. Or if necessary, a different cruise line.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.