Ferry workers hit with possible Norwalk-like virus

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Eight ferry crew members are recovering this week after another outbreak of what appears to be a Norwalk-like virus on a state vessel, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Though officials removed crew members from the Taku quickly, 400 to 500 passengers likely were exposed to what may be a Norovirus, the official name for Norwalk-like viruses, said George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

No passengers have reported being sick, said Louisa Casterdale, epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The Taku travels north from Prince Rupert to Skagway with stops that include Juneau and Ketchikan. The latest outbreak is the second instance on the Taku. The first struck a Juneau dance troupe traveling on the ferries Taku and Matanuska in early December.

A few infected crew members started showing symptoms of the virus Saturday and Sunday, Capacci said, after a crew change Jan. 9 in Ketchikan and Jan. 10 in Juneau.

By Jan. 12, Capacci said, ''it had just percolated through the crew.''

Symptoms include severe gastrointestinal distress such as profuse diarrhea and vomiting.

The crew members were given leave Monday. So far, Capacci said, no one else in the crew has shown signs of illness.

Six of the sick shipmates were stewards, another was a deckhand, and one was a licensed officer, Capacci said. The stewards, who have the most contact with the public, are in charge of housekeeping, dishwashing and food preparation, among other duties, Capacci said.

Ferry officials hired extra crew Monday to sanitize the ship and replace the sick workers on the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The cleaning took place Monday and Tuesday and did not affect the ship's schedule, Capacci said.

''From what we're being told, (the virus) can survive outside a host for weeks on door knobs, in food-prep areas, et cetera,'' Capacci said. ''We scrubbed down all the common areas with a bleach and water mixture and then went through and scrubbed everything down again. The ship's going to be bleached white soon, I think.

''We also scrubbed all the crew's quarters and the crew's mess (dining room), and we checked to make sure the water we're using to wash the dishes was hot enough to sanitize them, and it is.''

Casterdale, a state epidemiologist, said the state did not collect fecal samples from the affected crew members but the symptoms seemed consistent with a Norwalk-like virus.

The CDC confirmed this week that the bug hitting Ketchikan is the Norovirus. The CDC identified the virus from stool samples sent in mid-December.

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