With one in every five passengers getting sick on its last cruise Celebrity Cruises is taking the highly unusual step of taking the tainted ship, the Celebrity Mercury, out of service for 72 hours.
The Mercury has started its last three cruises from Charleston, S.C., and large numbers of passengers got sick on each. So, to combat what is suspected as norovirus, Celebrity is taking the extreme step of ending one cruise early, starting the next late and doing a thorough cleaning of the entire ship.
Norovirus outbreaks are common in colleges, nursing homes, prisons and on cruise ships. It is a gastrointestinal illness that causes vomiting, diarrhea and general nausea. It generally passes in a day or two with no lasting effects.
Cruise ship outbreaks often get a lot of attention because of stringent government reporting requirements and because nobody likes the thought of having a day or two of their week-long vacation ruined by illness.
This year has turned out to be worse than past ones for cruises.
There have already been eight outbreaks of gastrointestinal sickness on cruise lines in the first two and a half months of this year. Compare that to 2009 and 2008, when there were just 15 outbreaks each during the entire year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This year's strain seems to be unusually strong and easy to transmit," said Dave Forney, the former head of the Vessel Sanitation Program at the CDC who is now a consultant for the Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise industry's trade group.
Fighting Norovirus Cruise Outbreaks
Forney said that changing a ship's itinerary for a cleaning like this is very rare. He said when the industry first saw major norovirus outbreaks in 2002 and 2003 they were more frequent. Since then, he says, the industry has implemented more stringent cleaning procedures, and the last such 72-hour cleaning he can remember was in 2006.
"This is very unusual. There is no doubt about that," Forney said, adding that even having consecutive cruises with outbreaks is an anomaly.
Making matters worse for Celebrity, there has been an outbreak of norovirus in South Carolina, where its ships embarked. Forney said that the cruise line can do a lot to constantly clean elevator buttons, handrails and even poker chips to stop the virus from spreading. But part of the vigilance rests with passengers.
"Unfortunately," he said, "Americans are not very good hand cleaners."
What's more, if somebody has saved for months for a cruise and gotten sick right before the trip, Forney said it is unlikely they will cancel to prevent infecting others.
The latest sailing of the Mercury has seen 363 out of 1,829 guests come down with the sickness, according to Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Celebrity and its parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
The cruise line is bringing in an additional 50 crew members to help with the 72-hour cleaning. It has also hired a local carpet cleaning company to steam-clean all the carpets in public areas and all the staterooms. Finally, Celebrity is hiring a sanitation company to bring 12 workers on board to supplement its own efforts. These additional cleaners will use electrostatic sprayers, which use an electric charge to distribute the cleaning solutions evenly on surfaces.
Martinez did not respond to questions about whether Celebrity or Royal Caribbean had ever done such a lengthy cleaning before.
The plan follows a "no-sail recommendation" from the CDC, which originally wanted four days but settled on three after talks with the company.
New Cruise Itinerary
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of cruise review site Cruise Critic, said she thought the cleaning is "highly unusual."
"I've seen worse, but I haven't seen worse in a long time," Spencer Brown said.
"They're doing the right thing to take it out. Maybe they could have taken it out a cruise earlier," Spencer Brown said.
Martinez said in response that Celebrity has been "working closely" with the CDC since the first sailing on which people took sick.
"After the second cruise, both parties agreed that the enhanced sanitizing would take place in port, in between sailings," she said. "The ship's departure was delayed in order to allow additional time to sanitize the ship."
Now, the Mercury is set to depart again Sunday, two days later than scheduled.
Passengers on the cruise will be refunded for two days in the form of an onboard credit, Martinez said, plus a credit for a future cruise equal to 25 percent of their fare paid.
Celebrity is also offering passengers the chance to cancel without a penalty. Those who take the offer will get a full refund and a certificate for a future cruise equal to 15 percent of the fare paid.
"I think this is appropriate and right," Spencer Brown said. "That's decent of them because a lot of cruise lines will just make you go."