No Birkebeiner as Corona spreads

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The Corona virus has “entered a new phase” in Norway, public health officials declared Tuesday evening. New cases can’t be traced to infection abroad, and now even the traditional Birkebeiner ski race has been cancelled to discourage crowds and hinder the virus from spreading.

Thousands of skiers take part in the annual Birkebeiner ski race every year, but now both it and all related events have been cancelled to help halt the spread of the Corona virus in Norway. PHOTO: Birken

As the number of Norwegians infected with Corona hit 277, much stricter rules were being put into effect immediately. All public events involving more than 500 people should be cancelled, said state health director Bjørn Guldvog at a press conference that included Health Minister Bent Høie.

That can affect everything from concerts to university canteens and not least an important football match against Serbia that could qualify Norway to play in the European Championships this summer. It sold out Norway’s national football stadium in Oslo that seats around 25,000 people, but now it will have to play out with no spectators in attendance.

What’s disturbing health officials are five new cases of Corona virus infection in Western Norway, Vestfold and Oslo that can’t be traced to any travel in so-called “red-zone” areas like China, South Korea, Iran or northern Italy. That indicates infection has occurred among Norwegians in Norway, at the same time that test results confirmed 85 new Corona cases in the last 24 hours.

Bracing for a ‘partial pandemic scenario’
Health authorities are now also asking Norwegians to be extra careful when using public transport, while employers are being urged to allow their employees to work from home if at all possible.

Health Minister Høie took part in the health authorities’ daily briefing for the first time on Tuesday, just hours have he was challenged in Parliament over Norway’s preparedeness for the Corona outbreak. He’s the one who said Norway has entered a new phase, while asking public health services to prepare for what he called a “partial pandemic scenario” that could lead to needed hospitalization for 22,000 people. That’s a lot in a country of around 5.5 million people where hospitals aren’t dimensioned to take in so many.A total of 81 of the 277 people infected with Corona were infected in Norway, with 73 of the 81 able to attribute their infection to contact with others who were infected.

The other eight people’s infection is still under probe, and five “look like we can’t manage to track down the source,” said Line Vold, a divisional director at the national public health institute FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet). She wouldn’t offer more details into the condition of the five people involved.

“I want to stress that the situation is serious,” said Dr Bjørn Guldvog, state health director. A total of seven Corona patients were so ill that they were admitted to hospitals in Oslo, Vestfold, Drammen, Trondheim, Bærum and Bergen.

“That was expected,” Guldvog said. “In around 80 percent of the cases, symptoms (fever, coughing and other flu-like ailments) are mild, but for older people or those with other medical conditions, it’s necessary to be hospitalized.”

Another tradition sacrificed
Less than two weeks after the first Corona case was diagnosed in Norway, the virus is spreading quickly and affecting public life. The Norwegian Opera and Ballet, the National Theater and Det Norske Teatret all cancelled performances at least through March. Long-scheduled concerts by Bryan Adams next week have been cancelled in both Oslo and Stavanger.

Oslo’s traditional Holmenkollen Ski Festival was closed to spectators last weekend and now the annual Birkebeiner ski race over the mountains of eastern Norway, which attracts around 16,000 every year, has been cancelled too. Organizers warned of “huge economic consequences” from the cancellation of the race and all related events next week but said they had little choice.

“We’re taking our community responsibility seriously,” Eirik Torbjørnsen, leader of the Birken Ski Festival in Lillehammer that includes several other events as well, told state broadcaster NRK. “The only right thing to do was to cancel all our arrangements from March 14-21.”

In Bergen, meanwhile, local officials are requiring all restaurants to arrange tables so that there’s a least a meter between them, with serving staff required to keep the same distance from customers as well.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund