Cruise ship asea after scrub-down

Posted: Monday, June 07, 2004

The cruise ship Island Princess left Whittier early Sunday after the vessel was scrubbed down following a norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 400 passengers and crew members.

The Princess Cruises ship is heading to Vancouver, British Columbia, with a new set of passengers, cruise line officials said. So far, there are no signs of another outbreak.

"There's such a high level of vigilance to this thing," said Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours, the company's Alaska operations. "We're watching very, very closely."

On the previous voyage last week, 375 passengers and 49 crew members complained of Norwalk virus-like symptoms, said Julie Benson, a Princess Cruises spokeswoman. That trip was cut short about seven hours to give crews time to fully sanitize the Island Princess before the new passengers boarded.

By the time the ship arrived at Whittier Friday evening, 23 passengers were still sick, Ball said. They were allowed to stay overnight on board the vessel - isolated away from well passengers who couldn't find rooms in the Prince William Sound town. On Saturday, most were fit for travel, but several still were not feeling well, so Princess made lodging arrangements for them Saturday night, Ball said.

Altogether, 2,018 passengers and 896 crew members made the weeklong voyage from Vancouver to Whittier.

The first signs of illness surfaced early in the trip. Princess officials said onboard testing confirmed the presence of the norovirus - which includes Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses.

The virus can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting for 24 to 48 hours. It is spread through food and water and close contact with infected people or items they have touched.

A sick passenger evacuated from the Island Princess outside Ketchikan threw up on an Alaska Trooper Patrol boat en route to a hospital last Monday, according to trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. Two troopers got sick, both were treated and released from the Ketchikan hospital. One had to stay overnight because of dehydration caused by sickness, Wilkinson said.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is investigating the outbreak and sent a team to board the vessel in Skagway last week. CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson said Sunday that investigators had just returned and still must review ship medical logs and other information to try to determine the source of the virus.

"They'll try to trace it back to some common link," Pearson said. "Our investigation could take weeks, if not months. There's quite a bit of information we have to look at."

The "leading theory," however, is that about 10 passengers were exposed to the virus when they traveled through an area of the Canadian Rocky Mountains where a recent outbreak prompted Canadian officials to close down a private resort, Ball said. Those passengers were among the first to become ill on board the Island Princess, he said.

No one scheduled for the current trip canceled cruise plans because of the virus, as far as Ball knew.

The ship departed from Whittier several hours late, so Princess passed out dinner vouchers for downtown Anchorage restaurants to about 700 passengers on Saturday. Ball said the company also arranged tours to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage to make the wait a little easier.

Ball was in Whittier when the Island Princess arrived Friday evening and he spoke with several passengers wrapping up their voyage.

"The vast majority of folks didn't get sick and they got to enjoy the homerun weather the whole cruise - real nice weather," Ball said.

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