‘GOVERNMENT WILL PRIORITIZE’ VACCINES FOR SVALBARD RESIDENTS: Difficulty of coping if local COVID-19 outbreak occurs means accelerated schedule, starting w/ ages 46+

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Photo by Elizabeth Bourne

All permanent Svalbard residents are now a priority for received COVID-19 vaccinations due to concerns about the lack of resources if an outbreak occurs, Norway’s government announced Friday.

Svalbard remains free of COVID-cases and the proportion of the population considered most vulnerable to severe risks from the virus is lower than the mainland. But that is far outweighed by the archipelago’s limited medical facilities and remoteness, according to the government’s statement.

“A possible outbreak of infection in Svalbard will be very demanding to deal with,”Minister of Health and Care Services Bent Høie said in a prepared statement. “There is limited capacity both in the local community and at Longyearbyen Hospital to handle a major outbreak, and there are major challenges with transporting a possibly larger number of patients who need hospital treatment to the mainland. That is why we are starting vaccinations of the general population in Svalbard starting now in March.”

Shots are being offered initially to everyone over 45 years of age, according to the announcement.

Worries about Svalbard’s inability to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 have been a foremost concern expressed by national and local officials since the pandemic began a year ago, but until now that was dealt with through a series of heightened restrictions beyond those nationally on who is allowed to travel to Svalbard. While Svalbard remains virus-free, it comes at the cost of Longyearbyen suffering the worse economic effects of the pandemic of all municipalities in Norway, affecting foremost the tourism industry and one-third of residents who are foreigners.

Longyearbyen Hospital had already scheduled vaccinations March 24 for all local residents ages 18-64 with underlying health conditions related to more severe COVID-19 cases. There was no immediate announcement on when residents over 45 without such conditions might received vaccinations.

The announcement comes on the same day several European countries – but not Norway – announced they will resume use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was put on hold for several days following reports of blood clotting suffered by a few patients. The European Medicines Agency stated the shot is “safe and effective” following an investigation, which among other things noted the ratio of vaccinated patients with blood clots is similar to those without vaccinations.

Norway’s government has stated the vaccine’s use will remain on hold until at least next week. The doses scheduled to be administered on Longyearbyen on March 24 are the Pfizer BioNTech variant.

About 160 Longyearbyen residents received their first shot of AstraZeneca vaccine last week, with the second supposed to be administered 11 weeks later.