CORONAVIRUS QUARANTINE, IMPACTS REACH SVALBARD: 1 to 5 people in home quarantine; Visit Svalbard reports 20% cancellation of tour bookings; major events face uncertainties

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The first tests and quarantine of people in Longyearbyen who potentially have the coronavirus were announced Wednesday, as a multitude of other impacts from the illness that is spreading rapidly globally – including a large number of tour cancellations during the peak of spring season – are being felt through the community.

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Hand sanitizer is sold out in Longyearbyen stores, but health officials are emphasizing thorough washing with soap and water is equally effective. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

One to five people in Longyearbyen have been tested for the coronavirus, Bente Brataas, a department head at Longyearbyen Hospital, told Svalbardposten on Wednesday morning. She said she did not know the specific reason, but the company or companies involved have put employees and purchasing activities on hold.

Link: Official advice and updates in English from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health

“There are not many that we have tested, but those that have been tested are in the home quarantine,” Brataas said. “It may take up to three days for us to receive the tests.”

People who suspect they may have the virus are being told to call the hospital at 7902 4200 first rather than visiting in person. 

Numerous effects of the virus are already being felt in Svalbard, including about a 20 percent cancellation of tours by participants, said Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Strømnes, although he said it cannot be stated definitely all are related to the virus. He said the cancellations are largely coming from areas with high infection and risk levels such as Italy.

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Many places, including The University Centre in Svalbard and tour companies, are mandating people use sanitizer that is stocked and available. Photo courtesy of UNIS.

Furthermore, some major events such as next month’s North Pole Marathon are issuing advisories to people from high-risk areas – potentially meaning an enormous impact on the spring expedition and summer cruise ship seasons.

“We were already proactive several weeks ago in relation to competitors resident in China, for example,” Richard Donovan, director of the race, stated in an online interview. “At the time, there were travel bans just being imposed by various countries and we gave them the opportunity to have their entries brought forward to next year.”

John-Einar Lockert, general manager of Svalbard Adventures, told the Norwegian newspaper E24 employees have been notified layoffs are possible if the virus takes a heavy toll on activities, but so far that isn’t occurring.

“Currently, we do not notice any effect of the coronavirus,” he said. “There are some smaller bookings for the summer, it seems, but it’s too early to see any clear effect yet.”

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An alert poster in English about the coronavirus with a local contact number is being displayed around Longyearbyen. Image courtesy of Longyearbyen Lokalstyre.

Svalbard is also facing unique challenges as the virus looms due to the archipelago’s isolation, high percentage of foreign residents and visitors (especially now at during the peak of spring tourism season), and regulations that provide a lower level of health services than mainland Norway. On the other hand, Svalbard may have a lower number of people considered especially at-risk due to the relatively number of people over 65 years old and in infirm health – and visitors arriving for strenuous activities such as multiday expeditions are generally in better health than the overall population.

“Longyearbyen is particularly vulnerable with just one emergency hospital, and the local authorities work continuously to prevent the virus from spreading to Svalbard,” The University Centre in Svalbard stated in an alert issued Monday that contains practical health precautions and reporting tips. “Thus, it is of vital importance that there are preventive measures in place and it is very important that sick people do not travel to Svalbard.”

The alert advises students and staff from travelling to/from high-risk areas, and a number of guest speakers have already cancelled appearances.

“So far six to eight guest speakers have canceled their scheduled visits here,” Fred Skancke Hansen, the university’s director of health and safety, told Svalbardposten. “We must expect more cancellations.”

Ny-Ålesund is contacting all people scheduled to travel to the research community about their health status, and if those who’ve been in at-risk areas and/or showing any symptoms that might be from the virus will face a 14-day quarantine in the former hospital there, Kings Bay Director Per Erik Hanevold told Svalbardposten.

An emergency council consisting of representatives from The Governor of Svalbard, Longyearbyen’s municipal government, the hospital and other entities met last Friday. Strømnes, who is also the administrative director at Svalbardbutikken, told E24 the agenda included the archipelago’s food supply.

“We are filling up with goods such as cured foods, long-lasting milk – and that we should not run out of other products like coffee or toilet paper either” he said.

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While Svalbardbutikken has to wait with the rest of Norway for items such as hand sanitizer that are in short supply, the store currently has an abundance of toilet paper, which is among the other items being hoarded elsewhere. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The supermarket, the only large food retailer in Longyearbyen, as a practice keeps a large amount of non-perishables in its warehouse due to the potential of an extended cutoff of plane/boat shipments due to extreme weather or other circumstances.

The city has established four quarantine sites at Vei 224 for non-residents, City Manager Hege Walør Fagertun told Svalbardposten. She said there are also contingency plans if employees at critical facilities such as the electricity plant become infected.

However, Svalbard is exempt from Norway’s health coverage system, meaning non-Norwegian residents and visitors without comprehensive insurance coverage through their employer or otherwise are not assured of diagnosis or treatment, according to Norwegian health officials.

As of late Wednesday the virus had infected more than 125,000 people and killed 4,600 worldwide. Norway surpassed 400 cases on Tuesday (live map of known cases), and a significant number in the north have resulted in the cancellation of Arctic research conferences and military exercises. Norwegian Air, one of two commercial carriers with service to Svalbard, is cancelling about 3,000 flights – or 15 percent of its global schedule – and laying off a significant number of employees during the next three months.