“The alarm bells are ringing. Not just in Longyearbyen. They call in the Norwegian Institute of Public Health top management. And the Minister of Health. And the Foreign Minister. And the Prime Minister. That Norway’s first case of COVID-19 has occurred in little Svalbard, with its four doctors, is almost catastrophic.”
That top-level panic in January of 2020, several weeks before a global pandemic was declared, remained unknown to the public until this week when a newly published book revealed a prominent scientist in Longyearbyen tested positive for the virus after returning from a trip to China.
While their fears were averted when a follow-up test was negative – resulting on what an official called “the best exercise we have had” in preparation for outbreaks – it means the claim Svalbard is one of the few places on Earth with no COVID-19 cases is, while not a lie, a distortion of the truth.
“We have laughed a lot when we have read in Svalbardposten that there has never been a positive Corona test in Svalbard,” Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, told the newspaper this week after the book revealed he was the person who tested positive. (Full disclosure: Icepeople has included the “no officially diagnosed cases” claim in virtually every story published about the virus.)
The revelation is in Lilla Sølhusvik’s book whose title in English translates to “Camilla Stoltenberg – the year that never ended.” It documents Stoltenberg’s response to the pandemic as the head of the health institute – and the story begins in Svalbard with Holmén’s positive test about a month before the first actual case of COVID-19 was documented in Norway.
On January 26, two days after returning to Longyearbyen, Holmén woke up with a fever after feeling somewhat ill the previous few days, but didn’t think much of it, according to a narrative in Svalbardposten. But aware of the COVID-19 virus he contacted Longyearbyen Hospital the hospital in Longyearbyen and a nurse conducted tests on Holmén and his wife at their home – literally keeping the situation in the dark.
“The nurse asked the couple to turn off the outdoor light while she stood outside in the dark and put on a full infection control suit,” Sølhusvik wrote. “She did not want the neighbors to see her and maybe be scared.”
After a few uncertain days without hearing about the results, Holmén was told he could resume his normal activities, Svalbardposten reported. But it turned out the situation was anything but over.
“We received information that there was a person in Svalbard who was infected and who had been in contact with many others on Svalbard, including the governor, we were terribly worried,” Stoltenberg told NRK this week. “We knew that there was a person in Svalbard who had been to China.”
That resulted in Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, who’d been with Holmén recently, and other colleagues with her departing a concert – quickly and discreetly – and going into quarantine while further results of the incident were pursued.
Meanwhile, a symptom-free Holmén and his wife had travelled back to the mainland to a cabin they have outside Tromsø, when suddenly they were told they needed to go to a hospital in the city, according to the book. Authorities were about to send a press release, and the various health and political leaders were rehearsing what they would say to the press.
At the last moment they were notified by the hospital a follow-up test on Holmén was negative.
“The day this was going on is the best exercise we have had,” Stoltenberg told NRK. “The Norwegian Directorate of Health and the National Institute of Public Health worked together throughout this day. We experienced the ups and downs together, where we saw what did not work.”
Although there have been no official cases reported in Svalbard, rumors have persisted that numerous people were infected with the virus starting in late 2019 when some form of serious illness spread throughout the community. There have also been numerous alerts about possible cases that proved false, plus an outbreak aboard two Hurtigruten cruises that visited Svalbard during the summer of 2020 (although the ship they occurred on did not dock in any settlements).
Holmén, when asked by Svalbardposten how the positive test remained a secret so long, said he told a few friends “over a beer,” but generally “that’s probably not something you talk about.”