COVID scratches at Svalbard’s door | Polarjournal
The approximately 2,500 inhabitants of Longyearbyen so far had been spared from COVID itself. But the impact of the measures to protect the population has hit the economy hard. Picture: Michael Wenger

The Svalbard archipelago, with its main town Longyearbyen, is the only place in the Arctic that has not had a known case of COVID-19. Isolated from the rest of the world due to travel restrictions in Norway, Norwegian visitors are currently the only guests there, which does not make the situation easy for the tourism industry. A pre-trip testing regime and tracing are in place to prevent the virus from reaching Longyearbyen. However, there is now a possibility that SARS-CoV-2 has found its way into the last COVID-free zone.

As the local newspaper Svalbardposten reports, several tourists staying in Longyearbyen had to be quarantined. This, after they had contact with a confirmed COVID-positive person on the mainland. Thanks to the tracking system in Norway, the people could be reached. Currently, they are all staying either in private accommodation or hotels. They are quarantined for the next ten days, but this can be shortened with a negative PCR test result after seven days… on the mainland. From Longyearbyen all samples have to be sent to Tromsø for analysis. This means that it will take some time before the results are available again. As some of the tourists are staying in private accommodation, people living with them are also asked to stay at home until the test results are in. Everyone else should wear masks, especially in the shops. This recommendation is given by the doctor in charge in Longyearbyen to Svalbardposten. Tests carried out so far have shown negative results.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been travelling worldwide for more than a year now and has claimed more than 2 million lives so far. Currently, several mutations have already emerged that are even more contagious than the original. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There had been warnings for some time that the virus could come to Longyearbyen if the number of tourists increased again. As recently as January, tourists were forced into quarantine at a hotel after coming into contact with a positive person on the mainland. It is true that the government in Oslo has repeatedly announced that people should refrain from non-essential travel, even within the country. But at the same time, the government did not want to deprive the tourism industry of its last opportunities. Therefore, all travellers to Svalbard must have a PCR test, no more than 24 hours old, carried out on the mainland. Also, any quarantines after entry from abroad must first be completed on the mainland before the onward journey to Svalbard can take place. However, complete protection against the introduction of the virus cannot be guaranteed, as has been shown in other countries. In Nunavut, COVID was probably introduced to Arviat via a quarantine hotel in Winnipeg and has been there ever since. Meanwhile, of the total 381 cases of COVID in Nunavut, the majority have occurred in Arviat. There were also a total of 30 cases of COVID in Greenland, originating in Denmark.

Vaccinations have also started in Svalbard. Coordinated by Sysselmannen and Hospital, the three vaccines are delivered by Pfizer/BionTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Currently, the vaccination campaign is underway for people up to 57 years of age. Picture: Michael Wenger

As almost everywhere in the world, vaccination campaigns are underway in Svalbard. The administration of the archipelago, the Sysselmannen, and the Longyearbyen Hospital organise the vaccinations. For this purpose, the relevant groups are officially called upon to be vaccinated. The Norwegian Government has published a notice stating that vaccinated persons or persons confirmed to have COVID will be exempt from quarantine measures in the future.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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