Norovirus on a cruise ship? Juneau would like a call.

By June 29, 2018 August 31st, 2018 Community, Health, Juneau, Southeast, Tourism
The Holland America cruise ship Zaandam docked in Juneau on June 22, 2018. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The Holland America cruise ship Zaandam docked in Juneau on June 22. At least 113 passengers and crew reported falling ill after it left Seattle on June 18. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

There’s been another reported outbreak of norovirus on an Alaska cruise ship. At least 38 passengers fell ill with the stomach bug while sailing through Southeast Alaska last week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes reports of outbreaks on cruise ships on its website. But that’s not how the director of Juneau’s emergency room heard about a recent outbreak. Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Kim McDowell first read about an infected Holland America ship on social media.

“So I called the port agent to verify if there was any validity to it and they did confirm that there was but that they were at a level where they were able to contain it on the ship and didn’t expect to have any patients coming our way,” she said in a Friday interview.

The Zaandam recently left Juneau on its way north without any major reports of the illness spreading in town. But McDowell said norovirus – which causes severe vomiting, diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress – is something you don’t want to be around.

“When you’re talking about something so contagious as norovirus, it can really just spread and go through the communities,” she said.

A day later the Seven Seas Mariner called into Juneau. The CDC published a note on its website confirming that tests for norovirus came back positive.

“I didn’t hear anything about that one,” McDowell said.

That may be because the CDC didn’t post anything on until five days after the Regent Seven Seas cruise ship left Juneau.

Those that regularly come into contact with cruise visitors would appreciate more notice.

“There are certain cases that if they know in advance when they’re coming to port, we’d certainly like to know that,” said John Neary, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. It’s by far the community’s most popular attraction with thousands of cruise visitors daily.

“Every day there’s a concern because whether or not there’s been a recorded outbreak there’s always viruses on board these ships – as well as with any large concentration of people – so we have to take measures every day about hand washing and not shaking hands and these kinds of things,” Neary said.

His staff often fall ill mid-season, he said, so he’s appealed to cruise ship agents to communicate directly to his office when they know there’s a ship carrying sick people coming into port.

“We want to be welcoming here and at the same time we want to protect our own staff,” he said.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises spokesman Joe Chabus released a statement to KTOO on Saturday. It said the cruise line follows CDC protocols when dealing with contagious passengers.

“If a guest is diagnosed with symptoms they remain in their suite until symptoms subside, and receive free consultations, treatment and medication from the onboard medical staff,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, those who suspect they’ve come into contact with norovirus, should use plain old soap and water.

Charlee Gribbons, infection preventionist at Bartlett Regional Hospital, said hand sanitizers don’t work as well.

“Alcohol isn’t as effective on norovirus by sanitizing so you physically want to lather up with soap and water to remove the virus from your hands,” Gribbons said.

Last year the CDC reported eight norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships nationwide. Half of those were on Holland America cruises in Alaska.

The CDC released a statement Monday clarifying that ill passengers are not allowed to disembark when ships dock.

“Cruise ships isolate passengers who have been diagnosed with acute gastroenteritis for 24 hours after the last symptom,” the statement said. “If there is a port of call during this 24-hour period, ill passengers are not allowed to disembark into that port. Cruise ships block cruise cards of ill passengers so they cannot exit the ship.”

Editors’ Note: This article has been updated to add statements from Regent Seven Seas Cruises and the CDC.

Recent headlines