Police launch probe as Corona spreads

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UPDATED: Norwegian health authorities are characterizing an outbreak of the Corona virus on board a Hurtigruten cruiseship as both “large” and “serious,” with 40 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and people from 69 towns and cities in Norway affected so far. Tromsø, where the vessel Roald Amundsen remains berthed, is hit hardest with health care officials scrambling to track infection and now the police are involved as well.

Line Vold of the state public health institute isn’t happy that Hurtigruten waited two days to go public with Corona infection on board its new expedition cruise ship Roald Amundsen. PHOTO: FHI

A total of 38 people who were on board the Roald Amundsen on a cruise to Svalbard are confirmed to be infected with Covid-19, most of them crew members. Four passengers have contracted the virus as well, two of them from the Hurtigruten ship’s first of two Svalbard cruises from Tromsø.

Line Vold of Norway’s public health institute FHI reported Sunday that 36 crew members who worked on board the two cruises that departed Tromsø on July 17 and July 24 had tested positive to the virus as of Sunday evening. So had four passengers, as authorities work to track down test results from the home regions of all passengers.

Vold reported earlier during the weekend that FHI had tracked the more than 400 passengers at risk after the two cruises to their homes in 69 Norwegian municipalities. Local officials are now responsible for following up, making sure all go into quarantine and undergo testing.

On Sunday evening, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that police will launch an investigation Monday into the Corona outbreak, with both Hurtigruten management and employees on board risking fines or even jail over their delays in informing passengers and the public about the Corona infection on board. Cruiseline officials have admitted that they did not follow FHI’s guidelines in connection with the outbreak.

Quarantine ‘most important’
It’s now likely the numbers of those infected will rise. “It will take a while before we see the full scope of this outbreak,” Vold told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Sunday evening. Passengers testing positive so far are from the counties of Nordland in Northern Norway, Viken (which sprawls from the mountains of Buskerud to southeastern Norway) and Rogaland on the West Coast.

Fully 40 passengers are in quarantine in Tromsø alone, where the ill crew members are also hospitalized. “We’re worried we will continue to see more people infected,” Vold said. “The most important thing is that everyone goes into quarantine.”

One family from Bergen who was on board Hurtigruten’s cruise that left Tromsø July 17 said they first heard about the quarantine through the media on Friday, not from Hurtigruten itself. Cathrine Øvrebø Lund suddenly received a rash of phone calls from people her family had invited to a birthday party on Saturday. “They backed out themselves,” Lund told NRK. “It’s too bad we didn’t receive the information first. We would have liked to contact out guests ourselves.”

New ‘crisis’ for Hurtigruten
The Corona outbreak is a new nightmare for Hurtigruten, which had been among the first shipping lines allowed to resume cruises under what they claimed were strict infection control measures. Newspaper VG, however, reported that Hurtigruten officials were informed already last Wednesday (while the Roald Amundsen was still at sea) that one of their passengers on the July 17 cruise (from Hadsel in Vesterålen, Northern Norway) had tested positive for Covid-19. At the same time, two crew members had fallen ill and had been put in isolation on board. Hurtigruten officials reportedly thought the situation was under control, however, and didn’t warn other passengers.

“Hurtigruten should have recognized how serious this was right away,” one passenger who also works for Hurtigruten, Jan Tveråback, told NRK. “Now we’re in the midst of a crisis. In our group (of passengers) we have discussed that we shouldn’t have been allowed to leave the ship, but rather be kept on board until everyone had been tested.” He described “chaotic” conditions later in the day, when they tried to fly home, were denied boarding because they’d been on the Hurtigruten cruise and then had to find a way to undergo testing in Tromsø. They ended up calling the police to get help and information.

Now the police are investigating Hurtigruten’s procedures when faced with Corona infection. Hurtigruten officials are promising their cooepration.

‘Very sorry about what’s happened’
It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, after the vessel had returned to Tromsø early that morning, that Hurtigruten issued a press release that two crew members on the ship were confirmed as infected by the virus and admitted to hospital in Tromsø. Health officials in Hadsel, meanwhile, claim they alerted officials at Hurtigruten and FHI about an infected passenger from their area two days earlier as part of standard procedure.

“We think it would have been sensible strategy (for Hurtigruten) to alert passengers who had been on board with the infected person,” Dr Ingebjørn Bleidvin in Hadsel told NRK. “We also said so to Hurtigruten.” FHI’s Line Vold stressed that the health institute’s advice “has been clear, to inform passengers as quickly as possible, so that they can be alerted to symptoms and go into quarantine.” She told NRK that Hurtigruten instead “followed its own system and procedures to get the message out.”

The cruiseline waited two days (from Wednesday to Friday) to go public with its Corona infection on board, and by that time all the passengers on the second cruise had disembarked as well. Hurtigruten’s chief executive, Daniel Skjeldam, admitted to NRK on Sunday that communications broke down and that he as CEO is responsible. “We are very sorry about what’s happened,” Skjeldam told NRK.

Situation ‘serious’
He had initially told NRK on Saturday that management followed the advice of the ship’s own doctors and weren’t aware of infection on board until the ship docked at Tromsø. Skjeldam claimed FHI’s advice hadn’t reached Hurtigruten’s management, and that efforts will now be made to find out what happened with the communication with FHI.

Hurtigruten is one of few operators currently allowed to run cruises off Norway. Vold said that guidelines have been issued as to how it should proceed, adding that “we know from earlier experience that cruise traffic carries a certain risk. That’s why it’s important that the advice given is followed.”

Vold added that she wished passengers on both cruises had been informed of the infection situation earlier, “in order to limit more infection. We now see that there were delays in that process.” Health Minister Bent Høie was also concerned, and characterized the situation as “serious.” Corona can spread quickly, and three employees at the hospital in Drammen were also put into quarantine Sunday after they unwittingly had contact with a Hurtigruten passenger.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund