(This is a breaking story in progress and is being updated frequently as details are known.)
At least 35 crew members aboard Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen during a voyage to Svalbard that ended Friday have tested positive for COVID-19, one day after officials initially reported two employees tested positive shortly before the ship docked.
In addition, all passengers from the trip and one the previous week during voyages in Svalbard since July 17 must be quarantined at the order of Norwegian health authorities. One passenger from the first voyage tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.
The initial reports of infects raised questions locally and globally – which are almost certain to intensify now – about whether cruises were allowed to resume too soon after a ban on them in Norway was enacted due to the pandemic.
The revised count of infections among the Roald Amundsen’s 158 crew was announced by Hurtigruten late Saturday morning, almost exactly one day after the initial infection report. The initial release stated two crew members were infected, with the count rising to three and then four later during the day.
“None of the 154 crew members still on board the ship – including the 29 new ones who tested positive – show signs of disease or symptoms of COVID-19,” Hurtigruten stated in a press release.
“The most important thing for us now is to take care of and follow up all our guests and colleagues,” said Rune Thomas Ege, a spokesperson for the company. “We are working closely with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Tromsø municipality and local health authorities for follow-up, notification, further testing and infection tracing.”
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health declared in its own statement Friday all passengers aboard the July 17-24 voyage must be quarantined after the agency was notified Wednesday by the municipal government in Hadsel a resident of that journey tested positive. That order was expanded to passengers from both voyages on Saturday.
“The passengers who have been on board the relevant voyage will receive an SMS from Hurtigruten stating that they may have been exposed to corona infection,” said Line Vold, a department director at the institute of Public Health. “In addition, they will be contacted by the municipalities where they are registered for further follow-up.”
The health institute is urging 69 municipalities globally to follow up on a total of 400 people in some way associated with the infected crews, according to media reports Saturday evening.
A quarantine period of at least 10 days after the ship’s arrival in port is required.
The Roald Amundsen, among the first cruise ships to return to Svalbard following the lifting of a COVID-19 ban on their presence on July 15, did not make any port stops in the archipelago. However, Svalbardposten reported Friday local permanent residents of Svalbard were among those on board the ship during the infected cruises.
A press release by Hadsel’s government states the infected passenger was discovered during normal tracking of travellers, and was immediately placed in isolation.
“As the patient had spent most of the incubation period on Roald Amundsen, we contacted Hurtigruten and the health institute,” said Ingebjørn Bleidvin, the city’s chief medical official.
All crew members were kept aboard the ship after the infected employees were discovered before it docked in Tromso on Friday morning, according to Hurtigruten. All passengers on that voyage and the previous one were allowed to disembark, but about 60 who left the ship on Friday are also in quarantine in Tromsø.
“By the time we were notified the passengers had left the ship,” Kathrine Kristoffersen, Tromsø’s chief medical officer, told a news conference.
The crew members initially testing ill were already in isolation for several days because of what was believed to be another illness without COVID-19 symptoms, the company reported.
The resumption of cruise ship voyages as of July 15 – albeit under severe restrictions, including ships with a maximum capacity of 500 passengers and booked with a maximum of half that – was generally welcomed in Svalbard since a ban on all travel to the area has all but completely eliminated tour-related income and jobs since the pandemic was declared in March. But now questions about quickly being raised about whether the resumption of voyages too soon and if they should continue.
“On second thought, maybe it was too soon,” wrote Gene Sloan in an article for The Points Guy, a travel news website that claims to have 10 million unique visitors monthly. “One of the first cruise ships in the world to resume sailing since the coronavirus-caused worldwide halt to departures in March is experiencing an outbreak of the illness that has already sent people to the hospital.”
“Cruises to Svalbard and other parts of the Arctic were thought to be somewhat simpler to run during a pandemic as they don’t involve much passenger interaction with other humans. The typical Arctic voyage is an expedition-style sailing that involves landings and Zodiac excursions to see wildlife, glaciers and floating ice formations.”
Most passengers observed by Icepeople aboard a ship docked in Longyearbyen on Saturday were not wearing masks while in town. However, a local guide for Hurtigruten said passengers disembarking from a ship and participating in tours were wearing masks during those times.
A commenter on Reddit expressed disappointment in Hurtigruten’s resumption of cruises and handling of the situation “since the Hurtigruten isn’t quite like other cruise lines.”
“It’s DAMN lucky this ship was not on the (mainland coastal) route, but rather more a traditional cruise from Trømso to Svalbard,” the commenter added. “Imagine a plague ship pulling into port in many Norwegian cities gave me the shivers when the story first broke. So this isn’t quite a worst case scenario, but it is still really bad.”