Skiers took crisis home from Tyrol

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It isn’t migrants, refugees or terrorists who ended up posing the biggest threat and bringing the greatest crisis to Norway since World War II. It landed at airports around the country in early March, when more than 500 affluent Norwegians returned from skiing holidays in the Austrian alps of Tyrol and brought the Corona virus with them.

Corona virus warning signs like this, which have popped up all over Norway in recent weeks, were nowhere to be seen in skiing destinations in the Austrian alps that have been popular with Norwegians. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

That’s been documented over the weekend in newspapers including Dagens Næringsliv (DN), VG, Dagbladet and Aftenposten, among others. Alarming statistics painstakingly gathered over recent weeks by so-called “virus detectives” within the public health sector even show how initial infection rates were much higher in west Oslo’s wealthy Ullern and Frogner districts than they were in the more working-class areas of Groruddalen, for example.

“Much of the explanation is found in travel- and leisure habits,” said Dr Tore Steen, who leads Oslo’s health care division dealing with infectious diseases. He told Aftenposten on Sunday that it was mostly “ethnic Norwegians with relatively good incomes who travel on this type of skiing holiday,” which in this case involved trips to the Tyrolian Alps of Austria where wild after-ski partying can be as big an attraction as the area’s spectacular downhill slopes.

Spreading after skiing
Now the virus is spreading rapidly in the Norwegian capital and around the country, not least as those returning from their winter holidays mingled with many others before they were tracked down and tested. Aftenposten reported that one returning holiday-maker went back to work, to the cinema, to at least two cafés and attended a meeting of parents and a gathering with many children present before being tested and found to be infected with the virus.

Many of those tracked down in Oslo by nurse-turned-infection detective Martha Hansen were described as “very social types,” with one man unwittingly infected with the virus admitting to having met more than 100 “close contacts” within days after his return. A large number of those returning from Austria and Northern Italy didn’t feel sick and didn’t think that they could be carriers, and thereby infected many others with none of them knowing.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Norway’s largest business daily, carried one of the lengthiest stories this weekend about how lots of businessmen and colleagues flew to Austria for a week of skiing and partying, only to bring home what’s turned into a health- and economic crisis. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Steen and other medical experts believe the economic differences among those infected with the disease during its first few weeks of outbreak in Norway will “even out shortly.” The infection detectives, using airline passenger lists, have contacted many of those expected to make up a group of at least 549 Norwegians who were infected by Corona in Tyrol or on the flight home. The health care professionals have in turn requested names of everyone with whom each of the 549 has had contact, and they’ve been alerted and tested as well.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and other media have also tracked down many of those bringing Corona to Norway, and a large portion of them point to bars in Ischgl in Austria that specialize in after-ski parties. Ischgl, described in promotional brochures as Tyrol’s “entertainment central” and “the Mallorca of the Alps,” is a popular destination for Norwegians and other Nordic ski tourists. Large groups who skied and partied in Ischgl in late February and early March also brought the Corona virus back on a large scale to Denmark and Iceland.

Precautions came too late
Many of the returning Norwegians interviewd by DN have pointed to two bars in particular that have since been closed, albeit late. They’re known for being packed with boisterous skiers after the lifts stop runnings, who were served by equally boisterous waiters bearing large trays of drinks and even blowing whistles to make way through the crowds. One tourist who bought a large round of drinks for friends even admitted to borrowing the bartender’s whistle for fun and blowing it for as long as a half-hour. Guests also shared drinks and food.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Robert Grønnslett of Trøndelag, who traveled to Ischgl with a group of six colleagues, told DN. He described a bar called Trofana Alm as “so full of folks that we were all pressed up against the walls, there was dancing and jumping. If the virus was there, it had great possibilities. There wasn’t a millimeter between folks, and impossible to protect yourself.”

‘Joked’ about Corona
Questions have arisen over why none of the skiing- and partying Norwegian thought about protecting themselves, or even opted against traveling at a time when Corona was already causing trouble internationally. The Corona threat simply didn’t seem real to them, despite the close proximity to Northern Italy where the virus was already raging.

“We didn’t talk much about Corona, but we joked that if it was around, we were infected,” said Grønnslett from Trøndelag. His group met a group of 10 other Norwegians from Kristiansand who partied hard at another bar called Kitzloch, he told DN, and most all of them later tested positive. Only one in Grønnslett’s group tested positive shortly after arrival in Trondheim, but several others including Grønnslett fell ill later with fever, coughing and shortness of breath and worried they’d been tested too early.

He claims there were no warnings of restrictions in Ischgl at all during his stay, and many others claimed the same. “A few bells should have run in Tyrol, but they probably shoved the problem away to preserve business,” Grønnslett told DN.

‘Ski holiday epidemic’
Austria wasn’t yet on the early lists of risky areas like China, where the virus first appeared, or South Korea, Iran and Italy, where it later spread first. When Nordic officials jointly sent the patterns of infection that began emerging among the returning ski tourists, Austrian officials reportedly expressed gratitude. The bars were eventually closed, then the entire area and Austrian leaders, after tough criticism from other European leaders not least in Germany, have finally admitted that “a mistake may have been made.” They vow that they’re now “doing their best” to halt further spread of the virus.

Frode Forland of the state public health institute is now calling the Corona outbreak in Norway as “a ski holiday epidemic.” DN‘s eight-page article on Saturday tells the stories of not just Grønnslett but also four men from Kolbotn south of Oslo, several doctors from Kristiansand and Oslo, a real estate broker from Stavanger and a firefighter from a small town in southern Norway. “It was naive to travel, we see that now” real estate broker Eirik Bergjord told DN. He’s now living in a room in the cellar of his family’s home in Rogaland after testing positive.

Virus ‘so extremely contagious’
“This virus is so extremely contagious that if just one person from the bar catches it, he (or she) can spread it to everyone else,” infectious disease specialist Dr Dagfinn Haarr told DN.

Norway didn’t log its first confirmed case of Corona until February 26, right in the middle of the traditional winter holiday weeks when schools are closed and that this year ran alternately around the country between February 17 and March 6. On March 9, the country registered 169 confirmed cases but still only 18 tied to Austria. Today around 2,000 Norwegians are infected with Corona, with at least 549 originating in Austria.

It may put a damper on Norway’s culture of “skiing trips with the guys” to the  Alps. Several Norwegian students have also come home from Austria with the virus, but early reports suggesting one of the bartenders in Ischgl was Norwegian have since been refuted. He was German, with a Norwegian name.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund