FIRST COVID-19 ANNIVERSARY, FIRST DAY OF MASKS: Still no first case in Svalbard, 160 show up for first mass vaccination as community debates risks/benefits of reviving tourism

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Of all the staggering facts and statistics for Svalbard since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic exactly one year ago today, one stands out as the most significant: There are still no reported cases of the virus, making the archipelago one of only six* “countries” as classified by the World Health Organization able to make that claim.

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Local residents ages 56-64 receive COVID-19 vaccinations in the station at left and then wait 30 minutes in distanced chairs at the right to ensure they are not suffering from side effects. The vaccinations Wednesday evening at Svalbardhallen were the first mass treatment offered locally. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

(The asterisk is because North Korea and Turkmenistan have reported no cases, but those claims have almost universally been deemed false by international health and policy organizations.)

That single fact, of course, ties in to virtually all other local effects of the pandemic – most notably Svalbard suffering the worst economic hardships of any municipality in Norway due to entry and other restrictions often far more strict than the nationwide standard.

But there’s also been an inevitable resignation that the virus will reach a remote community still not ready to cope with a large outbreak. And so the one-year anniversary was remarkable in another way as it was the first day face masks for people 13 and older were required in virtually all indoor public locations and at large outdoor events, due largely to spring tourists beginning to return in significant numbers.

The anniversary also comes one day after 160 residents ages 56-64 signed up for the first mass vaccination in Svalbard, after older residents and those with the most severe health complications received dosages as vaccine shipments came in starting in early January. But even that wasn’t without concern and controversy, since it was the AstraZeneca vaccine which Denmark and several other European countries have suddenly halted the use of due reports of blood clots by several patients receiving it. (Update 6:30 p.m.: Norway announced Thursday it is halting use of the vaccine.)

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A sign at the entrance to Lompensenteret reminds people face masks are mandatory as of Thursday. The exception is when people are seated for meals at restaurants and cafes. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Norway is reviewing the vaccine’s usage today, although the National Institute of Public Health reports no such clotting has been reported in Norway and Danish health officials have stated they have not determined the medicine caused the problem.

Several residents who received the vaccine Wednesday and found out about its use being halted elsewhere expressed strongly worded concerns about its use in online forums. But Maria Fitje Hoffmann was among those noting the number of incidents is minuscule, even if related, and the government’s urgency in vaccinating Svalbard’s population to keep it as virus-free as possible is appreciated.

“I feel very privileged to get a vaccine much earlier than the mainland, and am still grateful that I am in the process of vaccination,” she wrote in response to other readers commenting on a Svalbardposten article about the vaccine’s concerns.

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As with most places where face masks are in wide use, Svalbard has plenty masks with local themes including this one of the Northern Lights being worn by a stuffed polar bear outside the souvenir shop and framing shop Barbara Foto & Ramme. Photo by Barbara Fogden.

The pandemic has caused and is causing its own epidemic of raging problems from Brazil’s president telling people to “stop whining” as mutations decimate the country’s health situation to individuals in the U.S. killing people who tell them to wear face masks. In Svalbard, however, there has essentially been a consensus about complying (if sometimes grudgingly) with everyday precautionary measures, which is proving to be the case with the first-ever face mask mandate.

Virtually all locals have been seen wearing masks at Svalbardbuttiken, for instance, during the past several weeks even though they were only strongly recommended by officials. There were complaints, however, that tourists in particular were mixed in their observance – with some being more compliant than locals in places like restaurants, while others ignored the recommendation altogether citing the fact nobody in Svalbard was infected.

Initial debate among locals about the mask is focusing – like most COVID-19 issues – on the risks and economic necessities of allowing tourists in Svalbard.

“We closed the island from tourists last year and with so many people losing jobs, moving to their hometowns and homelands leaving their friends, lifestyle and dreams, I can’t see how it had a positive impact,” wrote Rimante Hegland, a local resident from Australia, in a debate among readers responding to an Icepeople article Wednesday about the mandate. “Remember, we have a society where tourism became a quite big and important brick of this puzzle. Without tourism, your plane tickets will be more expensive, not to mention less flights (and) shops will have shorter opening hours, just to mention a few very simple examples. And when we will loose people who worked in tourism, they will move down with their kids and spouses, leaving empty school and so on and so on.”

“So I think it’s sad to read these comments from people with their safe and comfortable jobs, thinking how uncomfortable it will be to wear a mask in the shop.”

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Nokas, left, a six-year-old “friendly and gentele sleddog” at Arctic Husky Travellers is, is fed last March. Another local dogsledding company in Svalbard made global headlines at about the same time by stating it might be forced to kill their dogs as a last resort if travel bans continued or new homes couldn’t be found for the animals, due to cost of feeding and caring for them. Photo Tommy Jordbrudal / Arctic Husky Travellers.

At its peak about 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism workers were laid off due to virus restrictions, which at the onset of pandemic last spring resulted in a total ban on non-resident travel to Svalbard and forcing all non-residents already here to leave.

Norway’s government has approved several Svalbard-specific financial aid measures, including short-term funding last spring for foreign workers not eligible for unemployment/insurance benefits and then “return home” grants last fall. More recently it approved million kroner for “transitional” tourism industry projects and 40 million kroner for general tourism assistance.

But control measures beyond those on the mainland that hamper some tourism continue to exist, including a requirement all travellers to Svalbard obtain a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure, even if they’ve obtained a similar test when arriving or living in Norway shortly before that period.

Johan Jacobus Kootte

Although Svalbard has no official cases of COVID-19 – and thus no deaths from infection – one fatality has been directly linked to the pandemic. Johan Jacobus Kootte, 38, an Amsterdam resident working as the manager at Longyearbyen Camping, was killed when a polar bear attacked him in his his tent last August. He was supposed to arrive at the campsite in March to put up an electric fence around the perimeter as a safeguard against bears, but a travel ban prevented his arrival until summer when conditions and timing prevented it from being built. Photo by Jan Jacobs.

Concerns about tourists bringing the virus here were illuminated Monday when about five were ordered quarantined in guest lodging and private homes due to close contact with an infected person on the mainland (all have tested negative so far). Knut Selmer, the infection control doctor at Longyearbyen Hospital, said Wednesday it’s generally not possible to know immediately about visitors who’ve been in such contact upon their arrival even if the mandatory virus test was negative.

“We have to wait for the municipality (they were in) to notify us if they determine there has been contact with someone who is infected,” he said.

Selmer said there are about 250 tourists on average overnighting each day in Svalbard this week. While that is below normal for the peak of spring tourism season, their presence and the large public gathering occurring as part of the eight-day Solfestuka festival that ends Saturday were the reasons he recommended the mask mandate to Longyearbyen city officials who gave it their unanimously approval.

Despite the many clouds imposed by hardships during the past year, there have been a handful of silver linings in Svalbard.

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Unmasked members of the Longyearbyen band SvaJazz gather for a rehearsal Wednesday evening at Kulturhuset shortly after some took part in the town’s first mass vaccination. A Facebook post with the photo quips they are considering changing the band’s name due to the generous supply of vaccines available locally compared to the mainland. Photo by Espen Klungseth Rotevatn

Government funding is allowing the undertaking of various infrastructure repair/upgrade projects done by individuals/companies who’ve lost income due to the virus. A few individuals such as those who started Svalbard Delivery Service shortly before the pandemic started have reaped riches due the sudden enormous demand for its services. And even as the latest controversy about the AstraZeneca vaccine erupted, some receiving it still indulged in a moment of levity.

“Norway’s best vaccine coverage?” quipped Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, gathering with The Band Currently Known As SvaJazz during a rehearsal Wednesday evening at Kulturhuset in preparation for a performance on the last day of Solfestuka. “In this band 50 percent have received a vaccine. Anyone better? We’re considering changing our name to The Vaccinated & The Principals.”