At a time when the Norwegian government is strongly urging against all travel, around 3,000 soldiers from several NATO countries are arriving in Northern Norway this month to take part in annual winter military exercises. A total of 45 had tested positive as of Sunday, but Norway’s defense minister insists there’s no cause for alarm.
“The defense department’s most important assignment during a pandemic is to remain operative and carry out their assignments,” Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said on national radio Sunday. He defended the NATO exercise on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) as the military itself was confirming the extent of Corona infection.
“The military is very well-equipped for infection protection, and we’re using all the knowledge we have in such a situation,” Bakke-Jensen told NRK. He added that the defense department and ministry have “used a lot of resources” to handle the Corona threat since the pandemic started early last year. All participating NATO units have also cooperated in joint efforts to hinder the spread of the virus.
Everyone arriving in Norway is subject to Covid-19 testing, not least the roughly 1,600 NATO troops who have landed from England, the Netherlands and the US during the past week. The UK and US have especially high rates of infection, and the defense department (Forsvaret) confirmed that 41 Americans and four British soldiers had tested positive and were put in isolation at the Setermoen military base near Bardufoss in Troms og Finnmark, where they landed.
An additional 12 Norwegian soldiers based in Indre Troms have also tested positive, but none have had any contact with the allied soldiers flying in for the so-called Joint Viking 2021 winter exercises. Five of the Norwegian soldiers were in isolation at their military base while seven were in isolation at home.
Tested and re-tested
All the NATO soldiers were or are being tested before departing their home countries, and then tested again on arrival in Norway. Everyone testing negative is also subject to 10 days of quarantine before they can actually start taking part in the military exercises.
Now Norwegian military officials in charge are also imposing additional measures to limit the spread of any infection. They claim they’re working closely with both allied- and civilian health authorities and will further reduce the size of the groups (called a kohort in Norwegian) of American soldiers. That means fewer soldiers in each group and more groups, “so that fewer soldiers have close contact with each other,” according to a statement from the military. All the soldiers from the US will also be tested again during the coming weeks.
“We’re cooperating well and keeping each other oriented about the situation,” said Dr Vidar Bjørnås of the local municipality. The University Hospital of Northern Norway (UNN) is analyzing all the Covid-19 tests that are being carried out by Army medical personnel, so that local and regional civilian testing programs won’t be affected.
‘Capacity is good’
More soldiers are due to arrive in Norway this week, also from Germany, and Army spokesman Erik Skomedal said he expects more positive Corona test results. Dr Gunnar Skov Simonsen, who heads the microbiology and infection prevention division at UNN, said he does not, however, expect “any great challenges” in dealing with all the tests being sent in from the military.
“Capacity is good and tests from the local communities and hospital itself will have priority,” Simonsen said.
General Major Lars Sivert Lervik also defended the decision to carry on with the annual winter NATO exercises despite the Corona crisis. “It’s important for our ability to defend Norway and therefore Norway’s security that our forces train and work together with our allies,” he stated. He stressed that the military “must be able to operate under demanding winter conditions and also during a pandemic.”