A decade ago, I had the opportunity to sail aboard two Holland America cruise ships as the lead singer of a 10-person show cast. It was truly an amazing opportunity to perform and see the world before I settled down for good back in my home state of Arkansas.
Passengers and the ship’s crew members, including the entertainers, frequently encountered bouts of norovirus, which would sometimes cause severe gastrointestinal issues but rarely required medical attention. Symptoms came on suddenly but generally subsided in one to three days.
The ship’s medical staff and officers would keep daily tabs on reported norovirus cases, which were almost exclusively based on self-reports. Norovirus is highly contagious and can spread through contaminated surfaces or close contact with an infected person. If a certain percentage of the ship’s passengers or crew members reported symptoms, the ship would go into “code red,” during which we would all take extra precautions to prevent the spread.
On more than one occasion, I and my fellow castmates were called upon to work “other duties as assigned,” which usually meant donning hairnets and latex gloves and serving food to passengers so that they would not touch the serving utensils and unintentionally spread the virus. There were also times when we would spend hours wiping down every surface we could reach in the ship’s show room.
Routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces — bannisters and elevator buttons, for example — turned into a constant scrubbing onslaught by a crew member whose only charge for that shift was to swoop in hawk-like and sanitize their assigned surface after any contact.
For the most part, passengers were gracious and compliant with the extra precautions — I would often be greeted with the suggested elbow bump by passengers telling me they enjoyed the shows. But I was always amazed at the level of arrogance and willful disregard among some passengers, who would insist on serving themselves, demand salt and pepper shakers rather than the single-serve packets, or berate crew members because there was no self-serve ice cream that day. It was their vacation, after all, and nothing was going to disrupt their plans, certainly not some invisible virus from which they felt little risk and which they felt no duty to contain.
With every daily report during a code red, crew members and passengers hoped for good news — a reduction in the percentage of people reporting symptoms, enough to be below the threshold of a code red. That would allow passengers to get back to enjoying their vacations as they envisioned, and it would allow us to get back to regular duty — for the show cast, just being entertainers — and leave the “other duties as assigned” behind.
During one code red, my roommate began experiencing symptoms on Christmas Eve. So, consistent with ship protocol for crew members, my roommate and I were mandatorily quarantined to our room on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
For the ship’s passengers, quarantine was highly recommended but often ignored. For the crew, non-compliance with mandatory quarantine, or even failure to report symptoms, was a terminable offense. I never once experienced symptoms, but my assigned duty was to stay put.
The cruise ship norovirus is clearly no COVID-19. The extent of the sickness and loss of life that we are seeing across the nation is shocking. Hospitals in densely populated areas like New York City are operating under battlefield conditions, and every day brings greater likelihood that an acquaintance, a colleague, or a family member contracts the virus.
More alarming, though, is the noticeable arrogance and willful disregard for the well-being of others in our communities, the same mentality that I witnessed in my cruise ship days. This attitude was more common early in the current pandemic (remember the Florida spring-breakers) than now, but it persists despite school closures, directives to close gyms and entertainment venues, restrictions on restaurants and bars, and calls for social distancing.
If you are congregating with others on a mountain trail or in a church, it has to stop now. Your disruption is another person’s devastation.
In Arkansas, we may not currently be subject to a stay-at-home order, but we should all consider it our duty to do so. As humans, this is in the “other duties as assigned” category.
Editor’s note: Craig Wilson, JD, MPA, is the director of health policy at the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), an independent, nonpartisan health policy center in Little Rock. The opinions expressed are those of the author.