Royal Caribbean to end cruise early due to widespread illness outbreak

01/26/2014 6:01 PM

01/27/2014 4:58 PM

Royal Caribbean International is cutting a 10-night voyage short after an outbreak of stomach illness sickened hundreds of passengers.

On Sunday night, the Miami-based cruise line said the Explorer of the Seas would return to New Jersey on Wednesday, two days early, to allow for another round of cleaning.

More than 600 passengers and crew aboard the ship, which departed on Jan. 21, have been sick with symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms match those of norovirus, the cruise line said, but tests will tell what caused the outbreak.

The cruise operator already canceled a planned stop in Labadee, Haiti, on Friday to go straight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the ship got a thorough cleaning. It left San Juan on Saturday night and arrived at St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, on Sunday. That’s where an environmental health officer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program and an epidemiologist boarded the ship to investigate.

A new update from the CDC Monday afternoon said 595 passengers — more than 19 percent of the 3,066 guests on board — got sick. That’s more than twice as many as originally reported. Fifty crew members, slightly more than 4 percent of the 1,167 on board, became ill.

Earlier figures from the CDC reported that 281 passengers and 22 crew members had been sickened; an update Monday morning said 577 passengers and 49 crew were ill..

The company said that those who got sick were given over-the-counter medication on the ship and responded well. New reports of illness have dropped, according to Sunday night’s statement.

“Nevertheless, the disruptions caused by the early wave of illness means that we were unable to deliver the vacation our guests were expecting,” the company said in the statement. “After consultation between our medical team and representatives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we think the right thing to do is to bring our guests home early, and use the extra time to sanitize the ship even more thoroughly.”

Royal Caribbean said it was “taking several steps to compensate” passengers but did not outline those steps in the statement.

Once the ship returns to Bayonne, N.J., workers will conduct a “barrier” sanitizing program, making for the third aggressive cleaning since the illness emerged. The early return will also mean more than 24 hours will pass with no one aboard, which the company said will be “a significant help.”

During the course of the trip, the company flew more medical workers and equipment to meet the ship and did extra cleaning at two stops.

“In the end, however, the number of cases was still higher than any of us want to see,” Royal Caribbean’s statement said. “We will be cooperating with authorities and conducting our own internal assessments to make sure we are doing all we can to promote the health and safety of our guests and crew.”

The outbreak on Explorer of the Seas follows an episode earlier this month when 66 passengers and two crew members fell ill on Royal Caribbean International’s Majesty of the Seas during a four-night Caribbean cruise.

And Royal Caribbean isn’t the only company to battle stomach illness this year. The CDC said 130 guests on the Norwegian Star, or more than 5 percent of passengers, and 12 crew members were sickened during a two-week voyage that departed Jan. 5. Environmental health officers from the agency and an epidemiologist boarded the ship when it got to Miami on Jan. 19, and specimens were sent for testing.

In 2013, the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program posted information about nine outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships. The agency conducts outbreak investigations on ships that sail in the U.S. or are bound for the U.S. within 15 days when 3 percent or more of passengers or crew members report symptoms of gastrointestinal illness during a cruise.

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