HOUSTON (AP) — A cruise ship that had more than 180 passengers and crew fall sick with an apparent stomach virus returned to a Houston-area port early due to a dense fog advisory and not because people were vomiting and had diarrhea, a Princess Cruises spokeswoman said Friday.
But passengers whose seven-day vacation was cut short, missing their last stop in Belize, questioned that version of events. They said the crew announced on the second day of the cruise that people were sick, apparently with highly contagious norovirus, and that extra precautions were being taken to ensure it didn't spread.
A Royal Caribbean cruise returned early to New Jersey on Wednesday after nearly 700 people became ill with Norovirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday confirmed the outbreak and said 630 passengers and 54 crewmembers were sickened. The Explorer of the Seas was carrying 3,050 passengers.
But Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson said the situation aboard the Caribbean Princess was not the same.
"If we did not have the potential of the closure of the port because of fog we would not have come in early," Benson said.
The National Weather Service says it issued a warning about sea fog from Friday through Sunday. The Port of Houston says pilots halt all docking activity if fog is too dense.
The Caribbean Princess departed Jan. 25 for the Caribbean with more than 4,200 people on board. It returned Thursday night instead of Saturday. Cruise liners are required to report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if more than 3 percent of the passengers on board the ship become sick.
According to the CDC website, there are about a dozen cases annually where so many people become ill on a cruise, the vast majority with norovirus. This year there have already been three reported cases, including on the Caribbean Princess, and at least two appear to be due to that stomach virus. Overall, though, the CDC says only about 1 percent to 2 percent of norovirus outbreaks occur on ships. The vast majority of outbreaks are in nursing homes.
Cruise Lines International Association reports that more than 20 million people took cruises in 2012.
Jay Herring, a senior officer for Carnival Cruise Lines from 2002 to 2004, said norovirus spreads easily on a cruise ship where thousands of people travel together in a confined space.
"One time we had three consecutive cruises that had norovirus and it wasn't until we got serious about disinfecting that we got rid of it," said Herring, also the author of "The Truth About Cruise Ships."
"Every casino chip, every elevator button, every hand rail was disinfected," he added.