Cruising With a Norovirus Gastrointestinal Illness Outbreak On-Board Cunard Queen Mary 2.
This article covers what it is like to be on-board a cruise ship when there is a feared break out of the dreaded Norovirus. Something I have now experienced while cruising on Cunard Queen Mary 2. Something that is easily prevented, and carelessly spread.
While on-board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 during a Transatlantic Crossing, I posted an article about how the cruise line was obsessed with ensuring that there was no outbreak of the gastrointestinal illness called Norovirus. An out-break is something that is feared by both cruise lines and passengers alike. It is very easily spread, especially in a contained environment like a cruise ship. Hence the obsession. An obsession that has intensified with the dramatic increase in the incidence of Norovirus over the last few years, both on land and at sea. Though outbreaks at sea tend to hit the news, the growth on land is as fierce.
On the Crossing from Southampton to New York I was on, there was no outbreak of the Norovirus gastrointestinal virus across the ship. It seems that passengers were vigilant and had followed the steady stream of advice from the Captain and also placed in the staterooms. The main advice being to keep washing your hands, avoid touching much used surfaces like handrails and, if you have any symptoms, to stay in your cabin and contact the medical centre.
However, once we got to New York around 1800 passengers left the ship and a similar number joined. The ship left for a 12 night journey to the Caribbean, and there was an outbreak of Norovirus through the ship.
It is very frustrating, as it seems that the Norovirus will have been brought on-board by passengers who ignored any diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting symptoms before boarding. They may have lied when signing the declaration before boarding that they had no symptoms. If I was being generous, then I would say that they were unaware – and in the incubation period of the virus which is about 6 hours or so.
Norovirus is very easily spread. It is spread by touch, and so anyone with the virus will easily pass it on as they leave it on everything from doorknobs to bannisters. It is fairly easy to avoid by constantly washing of hands after touching things, using the alcohol gel all around the ship and by avoiding touching your mouth. But the speed with which it can spread is dramatic.
Although we do not know how many were affected. It seems to be a lot of people. Some news reports had it as many as 200 people.
Some of the visible aspects of how Cunard and the Queen Mary 2 deals with it, and works to ensure it is contained have been:
- Many messages from the Captain over the public address system and played in all staterooms. He constantly reminds passengers of the simple procedures to avoid spreading or getting it.
- Letters with the same advice posted in the room a number of times.
- Fewer people about at some meals and in the Kings Court self service restaurant. Suggesting people are affected or being cautious.
- No self service in the self service restaurant. You are now only served by crew wearing latex gloves, including water, teas and coffee.
- Request by the Captain for people to eat in the main dining room and not the self-service restaurant. They did not close the self-service restaurant.
- All board games and magazines that could be handled by many people in turn have been removed from around the ship.
- You have been asked to not use the public restrooms, and go to your own cabin if you need the toilet.
- Doors are opened most of the day to allow fresh air into the ship. I am guessing that this also reduces the risk of spreading through air conditioning.
- People who have been affected are required to stay in their rooms until cleared by the medical centre. You can tell which rooms are affected as their bedclothes and towels are put into red bags when their rooms are cleaned. It has also been reported that some people that refused to stick to this may have been asked to leave the ship when we got to ports.
- Crew are stationed at every public room entrance, like restaurants, with alcohol hand gel.
- The Captain and Senior Crew will not shake hands at events like cocktail parties, or when being introduced at other times or events. Then all such cocktail parties were cancelled, although the New Year Celebrations did take place. People were asked not to shake hands at midnight though.
- Crew are constantly cleaning all the bannisters, desk rails and anything that are touched all the time. It has created a vast amount of extra work for the crew. Their Christmas and New Year parties were cancelled or scaled back as a result too.
- You are asked to wipe all gym equipment with wipes that you touch and use.
- The behind the scenes tours were cancelled.
- A degree and atmosphere of concern and focus from all the crew. You can sense how serious they are about the spread and risk, and you are constantly reminded and encouraged to wash hands.
The issue and risk is seen as a big one. This is both from a health angle, but also from the risk of bad publicity and PR. When there is an outbreak the media seems to always imply or suggest that the cruise line is running a “dirty ship”. However, it does seem to me that passengers bring it aboard, and the actions of passengers actively cause it. Passengers spread it by touching surfaces with hands that are not thoroughly clean, and so place and spread the virus. While I was on-board I was getting many requests from media like the BBC to do interviews and comment – proving the point.
Ships like the Queen Mary 2 are obsessed with preventing and then stopping any outbreak of Norovirus. Both from a health and PR aspect. It can ruin a holiday as a cruise ship is a contained space with lots of people moving about who can spread it fast. Discipline and diligence stop it. Passengers need to be diligent, so the cruise lines efforts in keeping things clean and sterile are not wasted.
I have been impressed with how the crew on Cunard Queen Mary 2 handled this issue. It is clearly something everyone fears and the prevention measures at the start of the Crossing and then the Caribbean legs of my trip were the same. The key difference seems to have been how passengers complied and stuck to the early prevention measures.
Having been on a ship when people are affected has given me greater insight, and respect for the power of the virus. I see why Cunard and other cruise lines fear it.
Have you been on a cruise ship that has had an outbreak of the Norovirus? What were your observations and experiences?