Passengers disembark following illness aboard riverboat

Tuesday, October 24, 2006
About 500 passengers were taken off the Mississippi Queen riverboat Monday after 16 complained of flu-like symptoms. The passengers were taken to their final destination -- St. Louis -- by tour buses in Cape Girardeau. (Diane L. Wilson)

The Mississippi Queen riverboat evacuated all its nearly 500 passengers Monday afternoon at Cape Girardeau, with health-care officials citing an as-yet unidentified contagious intestinal virus.

Sixteen passengers were suffering from flu-like symptoms, one severe enough to be taken to a local hospital for observation. The remaining 15 and their traveling companions were taken to a Cape Girardeau hotel until this morning, said Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center.

The passengers were asked to stay overnight, Craig said, to interrupt the spread of the illness and contain it. She said the virus appears to be similar to the Norovirus, a group of related viruses that cause the flu-like symptoms.

The rest of the passengers were bused to St. Louis, where the week-long fall foliage cruise that began in Cincinnati was supposed to end on Wednesday. Ninety other passengers left the cruise early at a previous stop in Henderson, Ky., said April Matson, a spokeswoman for the Delta Steamboat Co., which owns the cruise boat.

About 30 or so of those who left early in Kentucky had complained of symptoms, which were first reported as the boat approached Henderson on Saturday, Matson said. Kentucky health officials said eight of the passengers were hospitalized in Henderson, Owensboro and Paducah, Ky. Only two of those remained hospitalized Monday for observation.

On Friday, a team of officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration boarded the boat to monitor the passengers, said Dr. Anandi Sheth, a CDC epidemiologist who was on board. The officials were also monitoring food and hygiene practices aboard the paddlewheel riverboat.

Sheth would not rule out food poisoning but said stool samples had been collected to try to identify the gastrointestinal illness that caused vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and mild fever. None of the illnesses was life-threatening, Sheth said, adding that the virus symptoms tended to last no longer than 24 hours.

The boat was evacuated, she said, as a precautionary measure after a conference call between the CDC, FDA, state Department of Health and Senior Services, and Craig, the county health director.

The boat departed for St. Louis at about 5 p.m. Monday to return crew members to St. Louis, where its next cruise is expected to begin on Wednesday. Before leaving, the boat's crew members loaded hundreds of suitcases into four charter buses. One was carrying cans of disinfectant in his jacket pockets. No crew members would answer questions.

Craig said the passengers who stayed at a hotel Monday night were asked not to leave their rooms, but added that the request could not be made mandatory because the illness was not life-threatening. Environmental staff members with the health center talked with the hotel staff, informing them how to clean the hotel rooms.

"It's just wiping everything down and using disinfectant," Craig said. "Really good old-fashioned public health hand-washing will stop this."

Karen Leopold of San Diego was a passenger who didn't get sick. She, her sisters and her parents were celebrating their parents' birthday, she said.

"We didn't really see anybody get sick," she said before boarding a bus. "We heard about people getting sick, and I heard that a lady got sick at the dinner table. ... It's disappointing, but the trip ended Wednesday anyway."

Passenger Chuck Graves of Wyoming didn't get sick either. He didn't notice anything unusual about the food or the way it was handled by the boat's staff members.

"They looked like they were being very careful to sanitize everything as far as I know," Graves said. "I had no complaints. I think they just got caught in the middle of it."

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. issued a statement Monday saying that by canceling the remaining two days of the sailing, the company will be able to conduct additional deep cleaning in all areas of the boat.

335-6611, extension 137

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