Royal Caribbean cruise ship returns home -- with a sickness record

Royal Caribbean cruise ship returns home -- with a sickness record
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 3:51pm

The ill-fated Royal Caribbean cruise ship returned home Wednesday with an ignoble mark on it.

Nearly 700 crew and passengers fell ill aboard the Explorer of the Seas, the highest number of sick people reported on any cruise ship in two decades, CDC data show.

At least 629 passengers and 54 cruise workers got sick, but not all at the same time.

According to publicly available data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that wins Explorer of the Seas the distinction of being the cruise ship with the highest number of sick people in 20 years.

Before the ship arrived at port in Bayonne, New Jersey, at least one frustrated passenger voiced her displeasure with the experience. Passengers were to disembark in northern New Jersey about 2 p.m. Wednesday, with some staying in area hotels until they can catch flights back home -- days before the Super Bowl will be played there.

"Are we bringing this virus off the ship with us?" asked Shannon Blace, a passenger from Toronto who was traveling with a party of 12 people -- 10 of whom have been sick. "We're all going to hotels all over the New York area. Will we be spreading the virus to the Super Bowl this weekend?"

Blace told CNN via telephone that she was upset and felt as if she had spent a week on a floating prison.

"It's just been a big nightmare," she said. "It feels like they (Royal Caribbean) never had a contingency plan in place to handle an epidemic on the ship."

Blace said it was evident early on that many people were sick. She felt the ship should have been turned around.

"On Wednesday night, I was in the dining room and a woman was vomiting into her napkin," she said. "There were people walking around in their pajamas with vomit and diarrhea on them. People were barfing all over the place."

On Sunday, five stool samples were sent from the ship to the CDC in Atlanta, where the samples were expected to arrive the next day, CDC sources told CNN. But the arrival of the samples has been delayed because of paperwork issues and the bad weather in the Southeast.

In a statement Wednesday, Royal Caribbean said the entire ship will undergo a "thorough 'barrier' sanitization program ... to make certain that any remaining traces of the illness are eliminated."

"It will be the third aggressive sanitizing procedure the ship has undertaken since we became aware of the issue, and will additionally provide a window of more than 24 hours where there are no persons aboard the ship, which is a significant help," the statement said.

The ship had 3,071 passengers and 1,165 crew members, according to the CDC.

Explorer of the Seas departed Cape Liberty, New Jersey, on January 21 for what would have been a 10-day cruise.

Passengers and crew developed symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

CDC officials boarded the ship in St. Thomas on Sunday to study the outbreak and the response on the voyage back to Cape Liberty.

The cause of the illness was not clear, though the symptoms are consistent with norovirus, the cruise line said.

Noroviruses spread easily and are a common cause of gastroenteritis, which produces vomiting and diarrhea.

"The number of reported new cases of gastrointestinal illness has dropped sharply after a spike in the first days of the cruise, and most guests who fell ill are up and about," the cruise line said Monday.

"The drop in new cases is encouraging. However, it is not unusual in an outbreak to still have smaller, secondary spikes. That is why, after discussions with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our medical team, we decided the most prudent course for the health of our guests and crew was to bring the cruise home on Wednesday, two days earlier than planned."

The company said all passengers would get a 50% refund and a 50% credit for a future cruise.

Those passengers who were ordered quarantined to their rooms will get an additional credit of one future cruise day for each day in confinement, it said.

"Guests scheduled for the next cruise on Explorer of the Seas can be confident that all possible measures will have been taken to prevent further problems," it added.

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