Ship decontaminated after virus outbreak

By Sheila Galatowitsch

NEW YORK—A nasty stowaway surprised passengers on the Regal Princess during a late summer cruise across the Atlantic, necessitating a decontamination of the ship and its environs.

The notorious Norwalk Virus appeared on the third day of the 16-day cruise, and by the time the ship docked in New York on September. 2, 301 of the 1,557 passengers onboard were ill, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP; Atlanta, Ga.).

It took workers from Coverall Cleaning Concepts several hours to disinfect and sanitize the Regal Princess cruise ship, on which 301 passengers fell ill with the Norwalk Virus. Workers also cleaned the buses that transported passengers to medical facilities and airports.
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The VSP investigates gastrointestinal illness onboard cruise ships sailing to U.S. ports.

Among the crew of 687, 45 were suffering the virus' classic effects: nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The highly contagious virus is spread through food, water and contact with infected people.

The outbreak was so severe that Princess Cruises (Santa Clarita, Calif.) decided to conduct a comprehensive sanitation of the ship without any passengers onboard, and under the observation of VSP environmental health officers. The role of the VSP was to ensure that the cruise line's sanitation crews followed their own cleaning protocols, says Dave Forney, VSP chief.

All areas of the ship were first cleaned, then disinfected. Surfaces were wiped down with bleach and several germicidal detergents proven effective against the virus. Fog machines were used to concentrate disinfectants in closed spaces.

Princess Cruises also hired cleaners to disinfect and sanitize the berth area where passengers were held upon departing the ship, and the buses that transported passengers to medical facilities and airports.

One of the contractors called in to clean everything from carpets to elevator buttons was Coverall Cleaning Concepts (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), a franchising company that specializes in cleaning medical facilities, pharmaceutical plants and a few cleanrooms.

Its Lyndhurst, N.J., franchise sent a crew of 14 people to disinfect from “the front of the ship to the street and the buses,” says owner Virgilio DeLaCruz. “We cleaned the elevators, escalators, buses, ramps—whatever the passengers touched as soon as they stepped out of the ship.” To guard against contaminating themselves, the crew wore heavy-duty gloves, masks and work boots, which were decontaminated after the seven-hour job was complete.

Although DeLaCruz had never handled such a high-profile assignment, he was confident in his crew's ability to clean the ship environs because of the training they had received over the years.

The coverall training program emphasizes proper use of personal protective equipment and disinfectants and preventing cross-contamination. “People have to understand the principle of the chemicals they use and the dwell times necessary in order to kill microoganisms,” says Ron Hyatt, vice president.

After two days of decontamination, the Regal Princess departed on a 20-day cruise to New England and Canada. The VSP monitored the ship daily for signs of illness, but identified no new virus cases. This result is vastly different from one year ago when several ships suffered through repeated virus outbreaks in spite of rigorous cleaning. “The Regal Princess is an excellent example of how you can go in and properly apply a cleaning and disinfecting protocol with very dramatic results,” says Forney.


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