ALERT – PEOPLE TEST POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 AFTER LEAVING SVALBARD: Hospital says area is still officially case-free, but unknown if infected people had virus here

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Image of Isbjørnår from local COVID-19 safety poster by Haakon Sandvik

Svalbard remains among the few places on Earth with no official COVID-19 cases, but people traveling from the archipelago have tested positive for the virus soon after their departure, according to an alert issued Monday by Longyearbyen Hospital. Officials there said vaccinations will be administered to all groups that have not yet received them – notably newcomers and youths ages 16-17 – during the next month.

“COVID-19 has still not been detected in Svalbard. In the last couple of weeks, however, more people have traveled from Svalbard who have tested positive on the mainland after returning home,” Knut Selmer, the hospital’s infection control doctor, said in a prepared statement. “Whether the infection was brought to Svalbard by the travelers or whether the infection was transmitted in Svalbard is unclear.”

Tests for the virus have been conducted daily since the global pandemic was declared in March of 2020 and Svalbard is among about a half-dozen “countries” as defined by the World Health Organization without any cases. That is attributed to extra-strict cinteol measures, including travel restrictions beyond those on the mainland, plus Norway’s government making vaccinations for the archipelago a priority.

Virtually all adults wanting shots have been fully vaccinated since late spring, but Selmer noted the constant turnover of residents, including the arrival of university and folk high school students beginning their terms, means there remains a significant risk. the number of tourists in Svalbard also rose significantly in August due to a relaxation on cruise ship voyage restrictions here.

“Longyearbyen Hospital is planning to vaccinate all groups that have not been vaccinated during September,” the hospital’s announcement states. “This applies to 16-17 year olds, newcomers and students. Everyone must keep in mind that there are many children and young people who have not been vaccinated, and we must keep in mind the general rules of infection control and show consideration for others.”

Norway eased many COVID-19 related restrictions in stages the past several months, but the number of positive tests reported in Norway has increased in the last five weeks and is this week at the highest level during the pandemic, according to the hospital.

“The Delta virus variant is now completely dominant in Norway,” the hospital notes. “In the last two weeks, more than 700 cases of COVID-19 have also been detected in fully vaccinated people. There has been a doubling of the infection in Norway in the last week.”