Questions continue to fly over how well-prepared Norwegian hospitals and public health services have really been for a public health emergency like the Corona virus. As it continues to spread around the country, shortages of protective clothing, equipment and even testing capacity “can cause considerable problems,” admits state health director Dr Bjørn Guldvog.
“This is a huge challenge for us,” Guldvog said at a press conference last week even before more hospital staff had to be quarantined and the numbers of confirmed cases doubled.
Heading into the weekend, he confirmed that shortages of protective gear when dealing with infectious diseases loomed, adding that “there wasn’t enough as we look forward in time.”
Many local pharmacies and medical supply retailers have already run out of face masks and anti-bacterial solutions for hand-washing. China, where the virus first appeared, has been among the biggest suppliers of such gear and now both production and exports have been affected.
“It’s becoming clear that the health services haven’t had especially large supplies in storage,” Knut Sunde of the trade association Norsk Industri told newspaper VG. Norwegian hospitals have reportedly begun rationing supplies and coordinating shipments of what’s in stock among health care services in various parts of the country based on need.
Perhaps the most alarming problem is sheer staffing within health care services. Ullevål University Hospital in Oslo, the country’s largest, was quickly hit hard when an unwittingly infected doctor exposed colleagues and patients alike to the disease. The effect was exponential, with hundreds of hospital employees being sent into isolation at home. Operations and clinic treatments have been cancelled and postponed, with all but the most critical procedures being conducted at the hospital’s busy eye clinic, which was hit first.
Quarantine procedures have been called into question at other hospitals as well, most recently the Sunnaas hospital on Nesodden and the maternity ward at the hospital in Stavanger. Public confidence can be affected when even health care professionals haven’t been aware of their own exposure and failed to take the necessary precautions.
“The most important limitation (on health care) is on the staffing side,” Dr Jon Henrik Laake, a chief of staff at Norway’s national hospital (Rikshospitalet) told newspaper Aftenposten. Health director Guldvog conceded that if many Norwegians become seriously ill at the same time, it will put “a great burden” on the country’s health services. Those on waiting lists for non-acute medical procedures are simply having to resign themselves to waiting even longer, until the Corona emergency subsides.
Testing put to the test
There’s also been concern over testing capacity for the Corona virus. Aftenposten reported how 21 cars were lined up at 7am one morning late last week outside the hospital in Bærum, just west of Oslo. Their occupants were waiting to be tested while sitting in their vehicles, since suspected virus carriers are not welcome inside health care facilities.
In Oslo, public health workers were sent home to test people in voluntary quarantine. Some people who sought testing, including the doctor at Ullevål who exposed many others to the virus, have been refused on the grounds testing wasn’t necessary.
“We can’t test the entire population,” Guldvog said, after Ullevål administrators apologized for the failure to test the doctor. “We have to set priorities as to how the testing can be carried out.”
With 169 Norwegians testing positive as of Sunday night, up from one just a week-and-a-half ago, indications are strong that more cases will develop. Others worry that all the warnings from health authorities about the Corona virus, and drastic measures such as closing arenas at the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival, are only frightening people.
“Developments in Norway the past week have been pretty much what we could expect,” Professor Ørjan Olsvik at the University of Tromsø told Aftenposten. He’s one of the country’s leading experts on virus and epidemics, and thinks authorities are overreacting.
“It’s much better for people to be careful based on rational thinking than on fear,” Olsvik said. “People can easily become irrational and egotistical.” He firmly believes Corona is “not an especially dangerous” virus, and that more people will die of normal influensa than Corona.
“We haven’t had any cases (in Norway) of anyone being seriously ill or dying (of Corona),” Olsvik said, adding that “it’s not unnatural that we overract to new things (like the Corona virus). That’s my main message.”