More cruise ships are being hit by federal inspectors with unsatisfactory ratings for sanitation, and for the first time in recent memory, the majority of the cited vessels are operated by major U.S. cruise lines.
Already in the first quarter of this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program has cited six ships for sanitation violations. In contrast, only four were cited in all of 2012. (For a larger view of the CDC's VSP chart, click here.)
Vessels cited since Jan. 1 include five cruise ships: Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fascination; Celebrity Cruises’ Summit and Century; Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess; and SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream II.
The sixth ship cited was the Caribbean Fantasy, a ferry that sails between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
It isn’t clear if the rising number of citations suggests a pattern of problems across the cruise industry, though certain problems were mentioned with regard to all of the ships cited.
The most common problem cited in the inspections was a failure on the part of crew members to report that they were suffering a gastrointestinal illness in a timely manner, thus potentially exposing fellow crew members and, in some cases, passengers to contagious illnesses.
An unfavorable rating means that each of the six ships scored lower than 85 on a scale of 1 to 100. They represent about 13% of the 47 ships that the federal Vessel Sanitation Program has inspected so far this year.
In a statement, CLIA noted that the overall scores for the industry are well above the passing grade of 85. The average ship grade was 97 last year, spokesman David Peiken said.
So far this year, Peiken said, “CLIA member-line ships that have been inspected have averaged a VSP score over 94.”
The Vessel Sanitation Program applies to any oceangoing passenger ship of 13 or more passengers that has a foreign itinerary with U.S. ports. Last year, the four ships that were graded unsatisfactory sailed for small expedition lines that were not CLIA members.
This year, five of the unsatisfactory ships are CLIA members, including four large ships that carry more than 1,800 passengers each. The only failing ship not part of CLIA is the Caribbean Fantasy.
Asked about the increased number of failing grades, Capt. Jaret Ames, director of the sanitation program, said its inspection standards and criteria have not changed.
“Every inspection is unique,” Ames said. “Over the same period, a few ships have failed their inspection, others have high or even 100-point scores.”
No outbreaks of disease have been traced to any of the problems cited in this year’s inspections.
The problems on the various ships range from soiled ice machines to broken dishwashers. Both the Carnival Fascination and Celebrity Century were cited for 95 individual violations.
But many items were considered so minor that they did not result in points deducted from the ship’s score.
One problem deemed a major violation, however, involves crew members continuing to work while having symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness. All the ships that were graded unsatisfactory had some version of that problem.
The Golden Princess, for example, lost five points in its inspection grade because an engine cadet, an assistant buffet steward and a spa massage therapist were all found to have worked while sick.
In its corrective action statement filed with regulators, Princess said its onboard notification system has been changed to identify crew members who report their illness symptoms late.
Princess also said that “the overall process is currently under review.”
The Celebrity Century lost eight points because nine crew worked while sick, including one whose time card appeared to have been falsified. In its response, Celebrity said it would train crews to report sickness immediately and would send an email about time card compliance to relevant managers.
Some cruise lines were cited for failing to monitor illness properly. A medical staffer on the SeaDream II said that anyone who came to the medical center who was vomiting was considered seasick so they weren’t entered in the gastroenteritis surveillance log.
In its response, SeaDream said it would log more symptoms, but the line reserved the right to decide if illnesses were “reportable” based on whether or not they are related to gastrointestinal illness.
The inspections are based on a 300-page manual that spells out standards for food handling, water purification, pest management, sanitary conditions in pools, hot tubs and spas and the handling of illness on ships.
Fees paid by cruise ships finance the program, which is mainly intended to prevent outbreaks of norovirus and other gastrointestinal illness.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.