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Cruise ship where nearly 700 fell ill is being sanitized, prepared for departure from NJ port

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BAYONNE, N.J. - Kim Waite was especially disappointed to fall ill while treating herself to a Caribbean cruise after completing cancer treatment. The London woman thought she was the only sick one as her husband wheeled her to the infirmary — until the elevator doors opened to reveal hundreds of people vomiting into bags, buckets or on the floor, whatever was closest.

"I started crying, I couldn't believe it," Waite said. "I was in shock."

Waite was among nearly 700 passengers and crew members who became ill during a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. The voyage was cut short and the ship returned to port Wednesday in New Jersey, where it was being sanitized in preparation for its next voyage.

Long lines of weary travellers arrived to freezing temperatures in Bayonne, as Waite and other passengers recalled days of misery holed up in their rooms with extreme stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.

"I've never wanted to go home so much in my life," Waite said. "I've never slept so much in my life, and I've got no suntan."

Health investigators suspect norovirus, but lab results are not expected until later this week. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its latest count puts the number of those sickened at 630 passengers and 54 crew members. The ship, scheduled for a 10-day cruise, was carrying 3,050 passengers.

If norovirus is to blame, it would be one of the largest norovirus outbreaks on a cruise ship in the last 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.

Norovirus — once known as Norwalk virus — is highly contagious. It can be picked up from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. Sometimes mistaken for the stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.

The cruise line said most guests who fell ill were up and about as the ship headed to port. It said seven people were still sick when the ship reached Bayonne, but none had to be hospitalized.

Royal Caribbean is providing all guests a 50 per cent refund of their cruise fares and an additional 50 per cent future cruise credit. It's also reimbursing airline change fees and accommodations for guests who had to change plans for travelling home.

Stricken guests who were confined to their staterooms are being provided a credit of one future cruise day for each day of confinement.

The ship will be sanitized and no one will be allowed aboard for a period of more than 24 hours as an extra precaution, the cruise line said.

Explorer of the Seas is on track to depart at its originally scheduled time Friday afternoon on its next cruise, a nine-night trip with port calls in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman said.

___

Associated Press Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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