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

The Holland America cruise ship Zaandam docked in Juneau on June 22, 2018. (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.

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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,” McDowell 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,” McDowell 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,” John Neary, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said. 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,” Neary said.

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.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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