RESIDENTS OF NORWAY AGED 65 AND OVER will now be offered a fourth booster shot against the Corona virus through their local municipalities. They’ll start being called in next week, and be given updated vaccine from both Pfizer and Moderna, reports public health institute FHI.
“Now that the variant-updated mRNA-based vacciines from Pfizer and Moderna have been approved as booster doses, we will offer them to everyone recommended to get them,” Dr Geir Bukholm of FHI told newspaper Dagbladet.
Those who’ve had two shots are still considered to be fully vaccinated, and many Norwegians have received a third booster shot. Now the fourth shots are being offered both to those 65 and over and to everyone between 18 and 64 who are considered to be in high-risk groups.
FHI has been running full-page ads in Norwegian newspapers during the past week to alert the public, with messages that their local governments “will have a free dose ready for you soon.” Oslo officials report they intend to start calling in those eligible within the next week.
FHI has been concerned that too few senior citizens were receiving new booster doses, and hospitalizations have risen by around 200 people a week, compared to just 20 a week last summer. The death toll has also risen, with officials reporting that more people have died from the Corona virus in the past few months than in the first two years of the pandemic. The vast majority of Corona victims are elderly.
NORWAY’S TOTAL NUMBER OF CONFIRMED CORONA CASES since the pandemic began rose to 1,460,242 as of September 2, according to state public health institute FHI. That’s up from 1,430,669 in May, when FHI stopped reporting daily statistics. The death toll from the Corona virus and its variants stood at 3,980, while a total of 15,525 Norwegians have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 since February 2020. 2,240 of them needed intensive care. FHI now reports that a total of well over 4 million Norwegians are now fully vaccinated, equal to 90.9 percent of the adult population, most of whom also have received their third booster.
EARLIER CORONA-RELATED NEWS IN BRIEF:
***The summer’s wave of new corona infection crested in July, according to officials at state public health institute FHI. They reported fewer cases of Norwegians testing positive to the virus, and fewer hospitalizations. “Our overview indicates that the spread of infection within the public is on the decline,” stated FHI, and the trend was continuing. The number of Norwegians admitted to hospital with Covid-19 was also declining.
The Omicron variant known as BA.5 continues to dominate in Norway, after taking hold in mid-June. By early July, hospitalizations per week had passed 300, but they were down to 252 towards the end of the month. The number of deaths rose to 83 during the first half of July, nearly 60 percent of them among the elderly. FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) warned, however, that the infection situation remained unpredictable and could change as Norwegians return from summer holidays.
***Norwegians aged 75 and older are now getting offers of a fourth dose of the Corona vaccine, with those aged 65 and older expected to get similar offers “soon,” according to Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI. “We expect any illness will become steadily milder after vaccinations and cases of the new variants.” He believes Norwegians are now as well-protected as possible against serious illness, with few of those falling ill this summer requiring intensive care.
Assistant state health director Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad warned, however, that Norwegians must remain prepared for more waves of infection this autumn. “Even though the pandemic has lasted for two-and-a-half years, we expect more waves this autumn and winter,” Nakstad told newspaper VG. That’s expected to continue until there’s some form of global immunity.
***Norwegian health authorities expected a new wave of Corona virus infection this summer, and they got it. The wave followed increases in infection already both at home and elsewhere in Europe, and new variants of the Omicron strain were brought home as Norwegians started traveling again.
Dr Preben Aavitsland of the public health institute FHI, told news bureau NTB in June that the new wave wasn’t expected to be “as big as the one from February to April.” He nonetheless thinks “a few hundred thousand Norwegians” will become infected by the end of the summer, many for the second time. Immunity among the public has lessened, he said, just as the new BA.5 variant of Omicron is spreading because it can infect those who otherwise are fully vaccinated or been infected earlier. He stressed, however, that FHI doesn’t expect many to become seriously ill.
“It looks like the new BA.5 has symptoms similar to the (previous) BA.2 variant,” Aavitsland said. Hospitalizations are currently rising, but not dramatically, and he doesn’t think any new shutdowns will be necessary. BA.5 now stands for more than 80 percent of all new cases in Portugal, where infection has risen the most. Its mutations can simply break through the immune systems built up through vaccination and earlier infection more easily.
***State officials stopped updating daily infection and hospitalization numbers in May, when many thought the pandemic was over, at least in Norway. Publicly run testing programs have also been shut down, leaving it up to individuals to test themselves and report any positive results. That means the authorities actually have “a poor overview over the extent of infection” in both Norway and Europe as of mid-June, according to Dr Espen Nakstad, the assistant state health director who became a well-known face in the media during the Corona crisis. “But we do see that hospital admissions of patients infected with the Corona virus have risen a bit now in June.”
***All Norwegians over age 60 have been urged to take a Corona vaccine booster shot every autumn, announced the state public health institute FHI in late May. Vaccine will be made available after all, even though health authorities earlier downplayed the need for fourth shots. Everyone aged 60 and above will also get an annual offer of vaccine, reported newspaper Aftenposten. The boosters had been reserved for those over 80, but new research indicates they can also be beneficial in younger age groups. No need is seen, however, for boosters for healthy people under age 45.
FHI officials told news bureau NTB that they expect to launch another round of vaccinations in the autumn. That’s because the effect can be good: “If people take more doses, they’ll be better protected against serious illness,” vaccine researcher Gunneig Grødeland at the University of Oslo, told Aftenposten.
*** The Corona crisis was believed in May to be mostly over in Norway, which currently has fully open borders and no restrictions in place to limit infection. There are no longer any testing requirements, and local communities have closed both their testing and vaccination centers as the country learns to live with the virus. Norway’s state public health institute FHI has even stopped releasing daily statistics on new cases, hospitalizations and vaccination rates, all of which have leveled off. Numbers below are the latest, many from last week. State officials claim they remain prepared if the virus flares up again, but for now, life is pretty much back to normal, two years and two months after the pandemic reached Norway.
Norwegians can give a lot of the credit for their emergence from the crisis to a Swedish pharmacist, Richard Bergström, who played a critical role in securing vaccine for Norway through Sweden’s allocations from the EU. Bergström, who’d been appointed as Sweden’s vaccine coordinator, took the initiative in late 2020 to offer Norwegian officials vaccine through a model in which EU-member Sweden received its share of vaccine acquired by the EU and thereafter sold vaccine videre to “third countries” including Norway and Iceland.
Norway’s own Corona Commission hailed Bergström in its latest report for being “the right man in the right place during this crisis.” Commission members also claimed that Swedish authorities “did more for Norway in this case than you can expect from a neighbouring country.”
***The Norwegian government’s distribution of Corona vaccine has caught criticism from a state commission appointed to examine how Norway handled the Corona crisis. Experts now think vaccine should have been distributed first to areas where infection was highest, mostly its cities including Oslo, instead of on a geographic basis that sent vaccine to all areas of the country. The commission’s final report notes that around 300 hospitalizations could have been avoided if vaccine distribution had been carried out with a priority on local infection risk. Instead, Norwegian authorities prioritized the elderly and others at risk of serious illness if infected by the Corona virus. “The decisions made on vaccine distribution involved not only technical questions of about how to save the most lives,” Erna Solberg, who was prime minister from the Conservative Party at the time, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It also involved ethical questions at a time when we didn’t know how it would function.”
The commission that she appointed now thinks it would have been better to vaccinate young and healthy people in areas of the country under the most infection pressure, instead of sending vaccine to areas where infection was low. Norwegian district politics often favours widespread geographic distribution of services and projects instead of on actual need. In this case, Solberg’s government risked, and received, loud protests from outlying areas if Norwegian cities got much more vaccine than they did.
Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, however, claims the distribution was wrongly skewed, even though his party now rules with the district-friendly Center Party. He’d been clamouring for more vaccine for Oslo, where infection was highest, only to see it sent around the country instead. “That was the biggest political disappointment during the entire Corona crisis,” Johansen told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. He claims Solberg’s Conservative government “wasn’t brave enough” to send vaccine where it was needed most, especially after the Conservatives’ mayor in Molde, Torgeir Dahl, suggested infection was high in Oslo because Oslo residents weren’t careful enough. Dahl later apologized for the political ploy, and areas with high infection rates later received more vaccine.
***Norwegians aged 80 and above can now receive a fourth dose of the Corona vaccine if they want one. No one will be called in for a fourth shot, though, and the offer doesn’t apply to the rest of the population. “Our evaluation is that we’ll open up for persons 80 and older to get another booster shot, if they ask for one themselves,” said Dr Geir Bukholm of the public health institute FHI on Wednesday. “We’re talking about a fourth shot.” FHI, however, sees no need for a general recommendation on a fourth dose, nor will Norwegians younger than 80 get an offer for booster shots yet. It will be up to local governments to offer information on how seniors can make an appointment for a fourth shot. FHI does recommend that those with seriously weak immune systems should get a fourth vaccine dose, preferably three months after their third dose.
***Stable hospitalizations, fewer patients needing intensive care and fewer Norwegians testing themselves: Those are the latest trends in the Corona situation in Norway after the Easter holidays. An additional 265 people have died from the virus during the past two weeks, though, confirming officials’ warnings that the pandemic is not over yet. The vast majority of those now testing positive report symptoms similar to a normal flu, and few become seriously ill. Only those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly are at risk. Dr Frode Forland of the public health institute FHI recently told newspaper Aftenposten that more elderly who test positive are in fact becoming seriously ill, and fatalities are rising. No one is sure why, but many have other health problems and can be more vulnerable. The average age of those dying from the Corona virus during the first week of April was 84.
***Even though life is mostly back to normal in Norway, the government wants to retain the right to demand use of Corona certificates to verify Norwegians’ health status. Their use in Norway is due to expire on July 1, but Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol wants to extend that until June 30 next year. “We must be prepared that the infection situation can change, and it may be necessary to reimpose infection prevention measures,” Kjerkol said just before the Easter holidays. Ongoing legality of the certificates can thus play an important role in Corona containment measures, Kjerkol said.
***Some Norwegians may be offered a fourth booster shot of the Corona vaccine before next winter, Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol announced on Tuesday afternoon (April 5). Those first in line would be “older” Norwegians (mostly likely those over 60) and people at risk for serious illness. “Vaccinations are our most important tool against the pandemic,” Kjerkol stated, “and the Corona vaccination program will be extended until June 2023.” She said local governments all over the country must be ready with plans to quickly expand capacity for a new rounds of vaccinations.
Kjerkol had earlier delivered a status report of the pandemic situation in Norway to Parliament. It’s characterized by a sharp drop in the numbers of new confirmed cases of the Corona virus. There’s been a rise in deaths over the past few months but hospital admissions have declined, as have the numbers of daily and weekly infection statistics. The health minister also largely accepted a report from state health authorities that Norway must now learn to live with the virus, but stressed that the pandemic is not over. The government, through an agreement with the EU, has ordered vaccine from both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that also includes vaccine developed to ward off the Omicron variant. It’s not clear yet, however, when the latter may be fully developed and ready for market.
***Norway’s health ministry claims it will be prepared for any new wave of Corona virus infection this fall. Several virus experts predict a new wave, but no one knows which variant may flourish. Immunologist Gunnveig Grødeland at the University of Oslo and Rebecca Cox, a professor at the Influensa Center in Bergen, told newspaper Aftenposten that they think the Corona virus will become a seasonal virus like the flu. They also think new variants will continue to emerge, but don’t know whether they’ll lead to serious illness. “But we are much better prepared than we were, because of the high level of vaccination in Norway and good immunity within the population,” Grødeland said. She noted that airborne viruses like influensa and Covid-19 often spread when it’s cold weather, for example in the autumn. That’s why a new wave may occur, whether it’s the Delta or Omikron variant, or a new one. Booster shots may be recommended for everyone over age 60. On Tuesday, health officials proposed new ways of learning to live with the Corona virus that were mostly adopted by the health ministry.
*** Norway’s public health institute FHI recorded fewer patients with Corona and more with influensa in March. FHI’s director, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg. After another increase, the numbers of patients hospitalized with Corona fell last week. Actual admissions fell from 545 in mid-March to 3345 last week. “Given the situation now, we can continue with more normal everyday life without any major measures against Covid-19,” Stoltenberg told news bureau NTB. She added that only 29 Corona patients needed intensive care nationwide, down from 56 a week earlier.
*** An international study involving Norwegian and Swedish researchers has established that taking the Corona vaccine poses no higher risk of complications for pregnant women. They can, however, become more seriously ill if infected with the Corona virus. Vaccination is therefore now being recommended for all pregnant women, regardless of which trimester they’re in. The study targeted 157,521 births in Sweden and Norway between May 2021 and January 2022. The births were examined in regards to premature delivery, still-born babies and low weight of the fetus. No risks tied to vaccines were found.
*** Norwegians getting ready for their first 17th of May in three years suddenly face an unexpected problem: Many are not fitting into their formal national costumes known as the bunad that are traditionally worn on Norway’s national day. “It’s a well-known phenomonen that bunads shrink in the closet,” Marianne Lambersøy, who runs a bunad-sewing studio in Stavanger, told state broadcaster NRK with a smile this week. She’s having hectic days, with customers streaming in for alterations. After two years of spending time mostly at home during the Corona crisis, and often in comfortable clothing like jogging suits, their waistlines have expanded. They’ve simply grown out of the bunads that cost tens of thousands of Norwegian kroner, just when they’re looking forward to finally being able to wear them again at 17th of May celebrations that had to be cancelled both in 2020 and 2021.
Norway is also heading into high season for weddings and confirmations, occasions that call for dressing up and donning bunads. Seamstresses and tailors all over the country are overwhelmed by all the calls for help. “We’re all working as hard as we can,” Lambersøy said, “but if you haven’t arranged to get your bunad altered by now, it’s probably too late.”
***The Norwegian government plans to evaluate how state authorities handled the Corona pandemic, which is now easing its grip on the country. The Health Ministry announced Monday evening that it will appoint “an expert group” specializing in national preparedness, physical and mental health, minorities, the law, economics and labour. Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said the evaluation should also examine how Norway’s response to the pandemic compared to how other countries have handled it.
The expert group will use reports already prepared by the state’s Corona Commission as its starting point. The group’s mandate will be to compile an overall evaluation of Norwegian authorities’ collective handling of the pandemic, from when it first reached Norway in late February-early March 2020. The group will also evaluate how the less-serious but more contagious Omicron variant was handled from November 1, 2021 until, tentatively, May 1, 2022.
***While the Corona pandemic almost seems over in Norway, it’s not over in many other countries around Europe and the world. State health authorities are thus urging Norwegians to be sure to check all travel and entry requirements in other countries before setting off on any spring holidays or planning for the summer. The war in Ukraine may dampen travel desire built up during the pandemic, but those determined to go abroad need to remember that many countries still have many Corona-related restrictions.
***State health officials think Corona infection levels in Norway have topped out now, and begun to decline. Infection waves set off by the Omicron variant now seem to be flattening out. “First we saw a decline in the heavily populated areas in Oslo and Viken (the county surrounding Oslo),” Dr Frode Froland of public health institute FHI told state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday (March 16). He said there’s also an ongoing decline in other counties, leaving infection rates fairly similar around the country.
The total number of confirmed cases in Norway is now more than 1.3 million. Froland speculates that the actual number may be “considerably higher” because of home testing that isn’t being registered. The number of new Corona patients admitted to hospital last week, however, was 12 percent lower than the week before.
***Norway’s public health institute FHI reports that the number of deaths in Norway since New Year has been “normal,” despite record high cases of the Omicron variant of the Corona virus. A total of 156 deaths had been registered by the end of last week, up from 152 the week before. Dr Frode Forland of FHI said it was surprising that there have been more Corona-related deaths, because of “considerably higher infection.” At the same time, Forland said the total number of deaths “has been at normal levels in Norway since just before New Year, both in the general population but also in those aged 65 and above. A total of 51 Corona patients needed intensive care in hospitals on Wednesday, with 29 on respirators.
***The Corona crisis is being blamed for an ongoing lack of passengers on public transport systems in Oslo. After investing billions in new and large trams, an upgraded metro system and emissions-free buses, the public just isn’t buying tickets or monthly passes like before the pandemic first hit Norway two years ago. Some blame higher ticket prices, which can amount to as much as NOK 38 (USD 4.20) for a single ride, but the pandemic has also changed lots of commuter habits. Many still work from home at least a few days a week and the need for mass transit has thus declined. Ruter, the publicly owned firm that runs transport systems in the Oslo metropolitan area, reported this week that the trams alone lost half their passengers in 2020 and 2021. If traffic doesn’t begin to rise soon, Ruter warns it will need to make cuts in its rout table and frequence. On a national basis, public transport losses may amount to more than NOK 3 billion.
***Weak ticket sales to cultural events indicate the pandemic isn’t over in Norway, even though restrictions have been lifted and infection numbers are believed to have peaked. Concert arrangers, popular performers and arenas cite an unusual reluctance on the part of the public to commit to dates and even to gather. “People seem cautious about paying for tickets and binding themselves to a date,” Simen Myrvold of Samfundet cultural center in Trondheim told newspaper Aftenposten. Lisbeth Mundheim Hofstad, sales and marketing chief at Grieghallen in Bergen, confirms that tickets often remain available until the day of the concert, but then are mostly sold. Tone Østerdal of Norske Konsertarrangører thinks people developed new habits during the Corona crisis and are more accustomed to staying home. She also noted that many people want to avoid the Omicron variant and aren’t keen to sit close to others at a concert, while most all Norwegians are also facing record-high electricity bills, higher interest rates and rising prices at the grocery store, so may be more careful about overall expenses. The Corona crisis has also been quickly followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Østerdal thinks many people simply don’t feel like going out.
The Norwegian Opera & Ballet has resorted to cutting ticket prices by half from now until Easter. The goal is to fill its seats on short notice, and it’s mostly been met. The Norwegian band Skambankt, however, ended up postponing its concert tour this spring because of low ticket sales. “We had really looked forward to playing rock again,” bass player Tollak Kalvatn Friestad told newspaper Rogalands Avis, and promote their new album, but the lack of advance ticket sales made the venture too risky. “We are still in a pandemic with high infection numbers,” Friestad said, “and it seems like folks just aren’t ready for concerts yet.”
***The City of Oslo intends to continue its vaccination program, even though the most residents have already received at least two shots. “We’re not going to end Corona vaccinations in Oslo, because among other things, we don’t know yet how the pandemic will develop,” city government leader Raymond Johansen told state broadcaster NRK. He said the program will continue “as long as there are people in Oslo who want vaccine.”
***Norway’s infection rate is finally declining, but hospitalizations hit their highest level ever on Monday. A total of 634 Corona patients were admitted to hospital nationwide, 54 of them requiring intensive care. Health officials have earlier said they didn’t think hospital admissions would rise much because the Omicron variant of the Corona virus that’s now spreading doesn’t result in such serious illness as earlier variants. Corona patients now make up 7.2 percent of all those in hospital at present. Intensive care capacity, however, is not threatened.
Infection rates have dropped so much in the Oslo suburb of Asker og Bærum that local officials have decided to stop reporting them on a daily basis. They also point to lots of home testing, resuts of which aren’t always reported to health authorities. That makes daily results of tests unreliable, but Asker og Bærum will continue to report weekly totals assembled by the township.
***Norway is emerging from the Corona crisis, with nearly all of those laid off now back at work and the unemployment rate at just 2.3 percent. One of the biggest problems facing employers at present is finding enough workers to fill vacant positions. Now it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that’s causing the most concern and uncertainty, even though it’s pushed the price of oil and gas (Norway’s biggest export products) up to the highest levels in years. That can help fill up the state treasury and Norway’s huge Oil Fund, but can also drive up prices of other goods and set off a new energy crisis.
Officials seem confident that Norwegians, meanwhile, are learning to live with the Corona virus and that life is returning to normal, marred, of course, by the new shock of war in Europe. Many feel they’re being jerked from one crisis to another, and that life will never be “like normal” again.
***Skiing star Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and the rest of the Norwegian men’s skiing team won’t be taking part in this week’s upcoming events in Drammen and Holmenkollen. All of them have tested positive for the Corona virus, after last weekend’s World Cup events in Finland. “It looks like the season is over for me,” Klæbo told NRK, who wouldn’t be racing against his arch rival Alexander Bolsjunov from Russia anyway. Bolsjunov and all other athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned from international competition for the rest of the season following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.
Other skiers testing positive include Håvard Solås Taugbøl, Erik Valnes, Pål Golberg and Sindre Bjørnestad Skar. “In my little world this is too bad, but in the bigger picture, with everything happening in the world right now, it’s not so important,” Klæbo told NRK. “Now the most important thing is to get healthy and get back to training as quickly as possible. Time will tell what happens later.”
It’s a big disappointment, though, for skiing fans and organizers of the World Cup sprint in Drammen and the Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo this weekend, since Klæbo especially is a big draw. Norway’s ski queen Therese Johaug was still due to race in the women’s 30-kilometer race on Saturday, with the men’s 50K and ski jumping on Sunday.
***State health officials think sick leave has topped out, after the numbers of those falling ill with the Corona virus stabilized last week. There are still lots of people testing positive and needing to stay home, but their numbers are no longer soaring. “It seems like the numbers of those out sick aren’t continuing to climb, and that’s very interesting,” Dr Frode Forland of state public health institute FHI told news bureau NTB. “It’s also in line with the infection development we’ve seen nationally” There were around 55,700 more Norwegians sick last week. That’s stable compared to last week. “We can’t say for certain that the trend has turned,” Forland added, “but it’s an indication.” He said the infection situation in Norway remains “demanding” but manageable, as Norwegians learn to live with the virus.
***Corona-related hospitalizations have more than doubled during the past three weeks, from 230 on January 30 to 569 on Monday. That’s the highest since the pandemic began, but health officials still aren’t worried. “It often takes a week or two from when infection started rising until we see it reflected in hospital admissions,” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) last week. “This shows first and foremost that there was rising infection during the second week of February.” State health director Dr Bjørn Guldvog has further claimed that hospital capacity in Norway remains “good” (see below), and that he wouldn’t be worried even if up to 1,000 Norwegians with Corona landed in the hospital. Of the 534 Corona patients hospitalized on Tuesday, only 58 required intensive care and 26 were on respirators. Nakstad noted, meanwhile, that infection in Norway’s most populous areas is flattening out. It’s still rising in western, central and northern Norway as the Omicron variant keeps spreading.
***Never before has Norway had so many people calling in sick to work or school, as the Omicron variant of the Corona virus continues to spread along with other flu viruses. Hospitalizations have suddenly jumped, too, but state Health Director Dr Bjørn Guldvog isn’t overly concerned. “It’s only been a week since restrictions were lifted and we still have high infection levels (see below),” Guldvog told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday. “That shows the pandemic isn’t over.” He stressed that the vast majority aren’t seriously ill. Those needing to be hospitalized don’t need to stay in hospital wards for very long.
Hospital admissions of Corona-infected patients jumped late this week, however, passing 400 for the first time. Guldvog said the numbers are likely to rise, but stressed that the hospitals can handle the increase, especially since far fewer (less than 50 heading into the weekend) need intensive care. Some businesses, however, are having staffing trouble because so many employees are out sick or are simply complying with the recommended four days of isolation if infected with Omicron. The public sector is struggling, too, with lots of teachers and government workers joining three government ministers out sick.
***Corona infection levels continue to rise in most areas around Norway. Public health institute FHI reported that removal of most Corona-related restrictions in Norway last week may have strengthened the spread. FHI also contends that the risk of serious illness remains low. Infection levels are still expected to rise during the next few weeks, but only 0.16 percent of everyone infected has been winding up in the hospital. That’s because the virus’ Omicron variant now making the rounds is milder than earlier variants and even more Norwegians are fully vaccinated and well-protected with three shots.
Fully 430,583 Norwegians have reported their own positive results to health authorities after testing themselves. Actual numbers of confirmed cases are likely much higher, since not all local communities have an online reporting service in place yet. At the same time, there may be overlap involving those who also tested positive with a more thorough PCR test.
***Norwegians headed back to school and work this week (beginning Feb 14), and social calendars are filling up again after most all Corona restrictions were lifted over the weekend. After nearly two years of strict regulation, fear of infection and social isolation, though, not everyone is thrilled about getting back to normal. Newspaper Dagsavisen reports that psychologists are concerned about patients who are anxious about building up a social life again, especially those who live alone. “We’re seeing that many people are struggling more than earlier in the pandemic,” Tove Gundersen, secretary general of Norway’s Mental Health Council (Rådet for Psykisk Helse), told Dagsavisen.
While most Corona-related mental health concerns centered around the loss of social life, others now fear returning to it. Some rather enjoyed staying home, avoiding stress around the holiday periods and not having lots of social bookings. Only 11 percent of those responding to a survey conducted by the University of Oslo, though, did not experience pandemic isolation as a burden, but now many still feel lonely (especially the elderly) and are unsure about how to overcome it. Gundersen recommended that everyone should maintain daily routines, get outdoors for fresh air and some exercise, contact some friends and eventually replace social media contact with real social contact.
***Three more government ministers have tested positive for the Corona virus. Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl, both from the Center Party, headed into the recommended isolation period of four days on Monday, and Trade Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård had to do the same on Tuesday. Nygård wrote on social media that “I’ve been better shape, but I’m fortunately not completely wiped out.”
Newspaper VG reported that Vedum’s test results came just after he’d been in several meetings on Monday, including one in the prime minister’s office. “He’s not especially sick, but will go into isolation and follow the advice you should when you’ve been infected,” Lars Vangen, a state secretary in the finance ministry, told VG.
Vedum and Mehl are the latest ministers to test positive to the virus, most of which is now the Omicron variant that’s still sweeping through Norway. Another 11,374 confirmed cases were reported during the 24 hours ending on midnight Sunday, fewer than the same day last week and another sign infection levels are flattening out, according to VG. Justice Minister Mehl will need to make “changes to her calendar this week,” the ministry told news bureau NTB, just like Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, Education Minister Tonje Brenna and Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen among others have already had to do in recent weeks.
***Public health institute FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) still has no plans to recommend a fourth Corona vaccine dose to Norway’s elderly, like Sweden is now doing. Only those with weak immune systems are currently being offered a fourth shot: “Protection after three doses is very good, also for them over 80,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI told TV2 on Monday.
***Nearly 20 percent of the Norwegian population has now been infected with the Corona virus, after health authorities reported on Saturday (February 12) that confirmed cases have topped 1 million for the first time. Fewer are hospitalized, though, and authorities insist they’ll still be prepared to handle the current wave of Omicron infection and new variants that may come along.
State health authorities stressed preparedness when the government announced Saturday morning that it was lifting most all its Corona-related restrictions aimed at preventing infection. The virus no longer poses a serious health threat in Norway, claimed Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, but he also insisted that authorities will remain vigilant since the pandemic is not over. It’s not over in Norway either, according to Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of public health institute FHI, but since it no longer poses a serious threat, she and Støre agree that the consequences of ongoing restrictions could be more serious than the virus itself. She confirmed that “preparedness will be upheld,” especially since new variants can still come, but the state will be armed with vaccines for them, too. High Omicron infection rates are expected for the next few weeks, with the numbers of those out on sick leave likely to create more challenges than the virus itself.
***Some of the very people trying to ward off the Corona virus, and keep Norwegians healthy, have been threatened by vaccine opponents. Norway’s state police intelligence agency PST is concerned about violence against those tracking and battling the pandemic. (For more, click to the full story here.)
***Education Minister Tonje Brenna of the Labour Party confirmed on Friday (February 11) that final examinations for junior high- and high school students will be again cancelled this spring. Excessive absence caused by quarantine, isolation and illness, along with limited classroom instruction during the pandemic, raises too many questions about overall preparedness for the national exams, both written and oral. Brenna stressed, however, that “this is not a signal that students can just take it easy” for the rest of the school year. “This is an opportunity to keep studying well and attending to school work.”
***Public health institute FHI thinks Norway’s wave of Omicron infection may have crested. That suggests the thousands of new cases being reported every day now for weeks are likely to decline, more reason for the government to withdraw the last of its infection-prevention regulations. Dr Geir Bukholm of FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) told newspaper VG on Thursday that Norway “is on the way towards such a high degree of immunity among the population that infection will decline without further need” for Corona containment measures. That implies a basic immunity amongst the public that brings the reproduction number (how many people every person infected with the virus can spread it to others) to under one. FHI now thinks infection can continue to decline even if all Corona-related restrictions are removed. It can still take more time, however, before hospital admissions and the numbers of people out sick with the virus begin to fall, Bukholm said.
***The Norwegian government has asked colleges and universities around the country to expand nursing school admissions by a total of 500 new students. They’ll be spread around colleges and universities all over the country, reports newspaper Aftenposten, with at least 65 of the additional student admissions devoted to those studying intensive care nursing. The need for more intensive care nurses became glaringly apparent when the Corona crisis began and especially as it dragged on. It remains unclear, however, how many nursing schools will be ready to accept more students this fall. Administrators were also unhappy that additonal funding covers only 300 of the new student placements. The nursing schools will need to fund the remaining 200 from existing budgets.
***Omicron is still spreading in Norway, and hospital admissions are rising again, but hardly any Omicron patients need intensive care. The number of patients in Nowegian hospitals’ intensive care units is the lowest in three months, raising prospects that remaining Corona-related restrictions will be lifted soon. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Wednesday that there’s a big difference between today’s Corona-virus patients and those admitted to hospitals just two months ago. They’re not nearly as sick, need fewer days in hospital and even fewer require intensive care. As of Tuesday, there were just 45 Corona patients getting intensive care at Norwegian hospitals, the lowest number since November 4. Many of those who do need need intensive care already had a chronic illness such as lung disease, diabetes or heart trouble that Corona has made worse. On Wednesday, state health authorities also recommended that remaining Corona-related restrictions either be eased or withdrawn entirely. The government has said it will issue a decision on Corona rules by February 17.
***More than 200 Norwegians will receive compensation in cases where Corona patients have either been infected in publicly run nursing homes or hospitals, or died under difficult circumstances. Approved claims for financial compensation apply to nearly 15 percent of all Corona deaths registered in Norway so far. Newspaper Bergens Tidende reported that a total of 221 compensation claims had been approved by the end of last year. All of them involve either Corona fatalities or infection during treatment. In several cases, the families of Corona patients who have died will receive the compensation. “This gives them an opportunity to move on in their sorrow,” Anne-Mette Fulaker, a divisional director for the state agency handling claims for alleged medical malpractice in Norway (Norsk pasientskadeerstatning, NPE). She also stressed that infection should never arise from hospital or nursing home treatment. The state has paid out NOK 16.2 million in compensation, with most amounts varying between NOK 20,000 and NOK 100,000.
***Even though Corona infection keep setting records in Norway, state health officials are now confident the virus is “less dangerous” than it once was. Remaining Corona containment measures may be further relaxed, with a new government evaluation expected by mid-February. “It looks like things are going very well,” Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol told news bureau NTB during the weekend. Lots of Norwegians are now out on sick leave, but Norway’s public health care services “seem able to handle it,” Kjerkol added. “The number of hospital admissions is not worrisome, and that’s good.” She said the prospects for further relaxation of regulations, including mandatory face mask use when people are unable to remain at least a meter apart, “look promising.” The health minister even hinted that the government may announce such relaxation sooner than expected.
***’A virus we can live with:’ Gunveig Grødeland, a vaccine researcher at the University of Oslo, has also reported that the Omicron variant of the Corona virus that’s still spreading quickly is less dangerous than earlier variants, and “a virus we can live with.” She expects Norway and much of the rest of the world will mostly open up again during the spring.
***More Norwegians were infected with the Corona virus in January than in all of 2020 and 2021 combined, according to numbers obtained by radio station P4 from the public health institute FHI. More than 400,000 confirmed cases were registered last month alone, almost all of which were the highly contagious Omicron variant. That compares to around 50,000 cases registered in 2020 and 350,000 last year. “We’re in the midst of an enormous infection wave right now,” Line Vold of FHI told P4. “We have estimated that as many as 4 million people in Norway will be infected before this wave is over.” That amounts to nearly the entire adult population, but few are expected to become seriously ill. Instead of basing the need for infection prevention measures on actual infection numbers, FHI is now paying closer attention to hospital admissions, which remain fairly stable and within a manageable range. That’s why FHI and other state health authorities recommened relaxation of Norway’s Corona containment measures, which the government agreed to last week.
***Debate continues over proposed cancellation of final exams for Norwegian junior high- and high school students, also after the state directorate for education recommended they should be. It supports the theory that Corona containment measures and so much remote teaching this school year mean students lack the standard preparation for exams they should have. The directorate cited varying levels of classroom instruction and academic guidance, students’ motivation and ability to learn, and how or whether exams can be carried out when infection levels remain high.
“The pandemic has affected the quality of teaching, but in varying degrees,” the directorate wrote. Students have therefore lacked a standard “framework for learning” and will thus have a “variable basis for final evaluation this spring.” Most students want to skip the stress of final exams, and instead be graded on other course work throughout the year. It’s still up to the government’s education ministry to make a final decision.
***The number of Norwegians currently on sick leave is soaring, with state welfare agency NAV reporting on Monday that fully half of them are sick with Corona-related diagnoses. Nearly 55,000 were put on paid sick-leave by their doctors last week, with 27,750 of them diagnosed with Corona ailments. That’s up by 4,600 from the week before and the numbers are expected to keep rising. When the current wave of Omicron-infected patients crests as expected in mid-February, as many as 20 percent of Norway’s entire workforce may be out sick. Public health institute FHI stresses that’s their “worst case scenario,” and the good news is that most Omicron patients don’t fall seriously ill. Many may be able to continue working from home and the government is also considering further relaxation of quarantine and isolation rules.
***Corona rules and recommendations keep changing and more were announced on Monday: Public health institute FHI announced that it was now adjusting its advice for self-testing at home: Instead of just the standard testing in the nose, FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) is also recommending testing of the throat in order to obtain more comprehensive results. Middle-aged and elderly people with Corona-like symptoms should especially swab both, first the throat and then the nose, recommended Dr Joakim Øverbø of FHI.
***The Corona virus may have already arrived in Norway several months before the government shut down the country and the Corona crisis began. Researchers have found Corona antibodies in blood tests from December 2019. The researchers’ findings at Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) “may change the story of the Corona pandemic,” project leader Anne Eskild told news bureau NTB this week. The first confirmed case in Europe was registered on January 27, 2020, while the first confirmed case in Norway was registered on February 24, when a woman who’d been in Wuhan, China (where the virus is believed to have originated) traveled home to Northern Norway and fell ill. The government launched its first wave of massive anti-infection measures on March 12.
Norwegian researchers, however, have now found traces of the virus in blood samples dating from around the time China first reported confirmed cases. Researchers in Italy have also found traces of the virus in blood samples from as early as September 2019, and some believe it was circulating in China before that. “The virus could clearly have been quietly spreading long before it led to serious illness and hospitalizations that brought it to light in statistics,” said Dr Espen Nakstad of Norway’s state health directorate. The latest Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly in Norway now, with another 24,288 cases reported overnight.
***Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol has confirmed further and “considerable” relaxation of Norway’s remaining Corona-related restrictions. “There’s simply no reason for them any longer,” Kjerkol told reporters, adding that details would be announced at a government press conference next week. Kjerkol’s comments came just after public health institute FHI recommended that rules be relaxed, even as Norway experiences record-high infection rates. FHI, however, stressed that infection now is not nearly as serious or possibly fatal like it was when the pandemic began. That’s because the vast majority of Norwegians are vaccinated and protected from serious illness.
The prospect of fewer restrictions came just as neighbouring Denmark was announcing removal of all its restrictions from next Tuesday. Sweden is retaining its restrictions, but only for another two weeks, also because so many people are now vaccinated and the virus isn’t as dangerous as it once was. Norway’s state health directorate, meanwhile, has recommended an end to mandatory testing for the virus upon arrival in Norway. The threat of imported infection is not as great as it once was, but border testing may still be required for those arriving without an EU certificate documenting immunity or a negative test. The number of those testing positive after crossing the border fell 43 percent last week.
***Norway recorded another shockingly high number of confirmed Corona cases on Wednesday (January 26), but the message from health authorities now is: “Get used to it.” Omicron keeps spreading quickly, hasn’t peaked yet and experts predict as many as 400,000 people in Norway may become infected or re-infected every week. “We’re probably all going to become infected, several times,” said Dr Espen Nakstad, assistant state health director, on NRK’s national radio news Wednesday morning. “Getting through the virus doesn’t leave you immune for the rest of your life.” He was infected himself last week, said it felt like having a cold and that he’s better now. Local media were also reporting on Wednesday that Education Minister Tonje Brenna is the latest government official to test positive, along with two of Norway’s Olympics-bound cross-country skiers and a coach. That’s at best delayed their departure for the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing and at worst jeopardized their participation in an Olympics that many wish had been been postponed or even cancelled.
The good news remains that most everyone who’s been vaccinated won’t get seriously ill if nonetheless infected with virus, even though Covid-19 remains a virus no one wants to get. Now even young Norwegians are reporting long-lasting effects of the virus, including loss of taste and smell and ongoing fatigue. A total of 24,429 new cases of the virus were confirmed overnight and Nakstad thinks the actual number is much higher, maybe even double. He and government officials now believe, however, that the country can tolerate more infection and that remaining Corona containment measures may be further relaxed.
***Norway’s strict Corona testing rules are being eased, after local testing programs nearly collapsed under record-high demand. Now fully vaccinated Nowegians testing positive in a rapid self-test will no longer be asked to also take a more advanced PCR test, simply to make sure their infection is entered into official national statistics. High demand for PCR testing has followed the infection boom tied to the Omicron variant. With so many people testing positive at home, and thus required to get a PCR test as well, long lines have formed at local testing stations and local authorities have struggled to keep up with demand.
Since few of those now testing positive fall seriously ill, Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol decided it’s time to drop the additional PCR test for everyone who’s fully vaccinated. That poses a risk that not all infection will be reported, however, and that infection statistics will no longer give as accurate a picture of actual infection in society. “We expect that we’ll get considerably fewer confirmed cases reported into the national system than we’ve had before,” Line Vold of public health institute FHI told news bureau NTB on Tuesday. Authorities think it’s more important, though, to reduce the crush of test results pouring in during the Omicron wave. The numbers of Corona patients admitted to hospital, Vold said, will now be viewed as a more important indicator of the pandemic’s development.
***Vaccination against the Corona virus remains voluntary in Norway, but now some employers are trying to require it. Newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad reported last week that oil company Aker BP, for example, has issued some controversial new rules that will, from February 1, prevent non-vaccinated workers from traveling out to offshore platforms. Those unable to document vaccination or Covid-19 infection within the past 12 months were told they’ll be transferred to other jobs on land. Aker BP earlier has only required three consecutive days of negative test results before workers could be cleared for offshore duty, but no longer thinks that’s sufficient during the current Omicron wave of infection. The company is already being challenged, however, by labour attorneys and state authorities who maintain that employers can’t effectively demand that employees be vaccinated. Transfers to other jobs may be viewed as a form of suspension that’s not allowed under labour law. Negotiations were underway.
***It’s official: The pandemic is believed to be behind a baby boom in Norway that’s reversed more than a decade-long trend of declining birth rates. For the first time in 13 years, the number of babies born in Norway has risen on an annual basis. Nearly 3,000 more babies were born nationwide last year than the year before that. Public health institute FHI reports a total of 56,551 births in Norway in 2021, compared to 53,626 in 2020. “This is extremely positive, but we don’t know whether it will continue,” Dr Kristine Stangenes of FHI’s medical birth register told newspaper VG. “We know little about the exact reasons for the increase in births, apart from that it’s complex.”
The most likely reason is that couples have spent much more time at home during the pandemic and, perhaps, more time in bed. At least that’s one of the theories shared by Ann Karin Swang of the state nurses’ association. She also cites lower worries about infection and illness while pregnant and, she told newspaper Aftenposten, a relatively strong economy despite layoffs in some sectors. Many of the babies born in Norway last year were their parents’ second child, according to FHI. Aftenposten also noted that the number of babies born in January of last year was up 4.9 percent over January 2020, before the pandemic reached Norway. The majority of babies born last year were also conceived after Norway shut down because of the Corona crisis in mid-March 2020.
***The Norwegian government is ready to spend billions of more kroner on Corona crisis relief packages. The Labour and Center parties win support from the Socialist Left party (SV) late last week for a new support package that will grant more financial aid to students (at least NOK 300 million), cover the cost of ticket refunds for performances cancelled because of Corona restrictions (NOK 880 million), provide an additional NOK 100 million for mental health programs and NOK 20 million for programs to help relieve loneliness among the elderly. New measures and aid packages come in addition to around NOK 20 billion already earmarked by the government, and are aimed at “making everyday life a bit less demanding” for those hit extra hard by the pandemic.
***The chief economist at one of Norway’s major banks has called on the government to lift all remaining Corona containment measures. Harald Magnus Andreassen at Sparebank 1 Markets has supported restrictions since the pandemic began, but now thinks they’re doing more bad than good. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reports that Andreassen has “serious questions” over why the government hasn’t removed restrictions already. They did raise the maximum size of indoor gatherings, but not enough to help large concert halls and theaters. The next evaluation of measures isn’t due until current ever-rising infection levels are expected to peak in early February.
“There’s no reason to wait for several weeks to relax all the restrictions, it can be done immediately,” claims Andreassen. “Today we have all reason to believe that Omicron is manageable and won’t create any crisis in the health care system, so then there’s no need to create problems in the economy. The consequences of Omicron are now quite certainly minimal compared to the economic consequences of the (anti-infection) measures.” Katrine Løken, an economics professor at Norwegian business school NHH, tends to agree. “We’re learning a bit more every day, and based on what we see, there’s reason to ease up,” Løken told DN. “I think those of us in Norway need some time to be certain before we let go, but we should absolutely ease up.”
***Oslo set another dubious infection record heading into the weekend, registering 3,785 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus during a 24-hour period ending on Friday. That’s more than double the 1,565 new cases reported during the same period last week. Oslo has averaged 2,441 new cases per day during the past week.
***Corona containment measures may be further eased, even as Omicron infection soars in Norway, since the current wave of illness is not putting a bigger burden on hospitals or their intensive care units. Organizers of cultural events have been protesting the ongoing limit of 200 people at indoor events, and that’s one of the rules that may be lifted. Dr Bjørn Guldvog told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday that the reduced threat to health care services “gives us more room to make adjustments” to measures like the limits on public gatherings. He was worried, though, that with so many Norwegians already out on sick leave or in quarantine, hospitals may come under severe staffing pressure. It’s therefore important, he said, to control infection.
Several hundred organizers of concerts, theater performances and other public gatherings demonstrated in front of Parliament on Wednesday, demanding to be able to have more than 200 people in large concert halls, theaters and cinemas. They don’t think that would pose any greater risk than going to shopping centers, bars or restaurants, which have been reopening recently. The demonstrators had intended to turn over a list of their demands to the government minister of culture, Anette Trettebergstuen, but she couldn’t meet them after testing positive to the Corona virus herself. “This illustrates that the pandemic is still with us,” Trettebergstuen told newspaper Dagsavisen, adding, however, that she was sorry she couldn’t meet up. She’s also hinted that changes to the currently strict rules may be made soon.
***Health authorities expect record infection numbers in Norway over the next two weeks, with the new wave clearly underway. Fully 15,367 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus were registered in Norway during the 24-hours from Tuesday to Wednesday (January 19). The number of new cases broke all records and is the highest since the pandemic began. There was some good news, though: “We’re fortunately seeing that the gap between registered infection and hospital admissions is widening with the Omicron variant,” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told state broadcaster NRK Wednesday morning. On Thursday (January 20), Nakstad himself announced that he’d tested positive as well after his children had been infected at school. Nakstad said he has mild cold-like symptoms and reckons he’s been infected with the Omicron variant.
Nakstad, who’d already gone into self-imposed quarantine, could also be encouraged that the numbers of Corona patients needing intensive care has also fallen. Only 74 of the 238 people hospitalized with the Corona virus on Tuesday and Wednesday were under intensive care, with 49 on respirators. The chief medical officer in Trondheim, Dr Eli-Anne Skaug, went so far as to call Omicron “a blessing that has saved us from Delta, which was a harder variant.” She added that “most of us are well-vaccinated” and protected from serious illness.
***The government is being criticized again for sending out mixed signals after anti-infection measures were recently relaxed. Norwegians are being urged to avoid social contact yet also go out and buy tickets for cultural events. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre continues to claim that Norwegians should limit the number of people they meet, avoid public transportation and preferably work from home. His minister in charge of culture and sports Anette Trettebergstuen, however, has urged Norwegians to go out and enjoy cultural events or patronize reopening restaurants.
“I can understand that folks can get confused,” Kjell Ringdal, who lectures on communications at Kristiania College in Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “I think the entire line of communication from the government reflects that things are moving very fast and they aren’t coordinating their remarks very well.” The criticism over contradictory communication comes just as health officials are expecting a wave of new infection that won’t crest until late January or early February before it starts declining through the spring.
***It’s about to get easier to travel into Sweden again. The Swedish government announced it will, starting Friday, drop its recent demand for a negative PCR test and allow entry with just a valid Corona certificate documenting full vaccination. The relaxation of entry requirements is especially good news for shopping centers just over the border to Sweden, which have lost lots of Norwegian customers in recent weeks. “We are very happy and wish a hearty welcome to all Norwegians who now only need a koronapass to come into Sweden,” the leader of Nordby Shopping Center, Ståle Løvheim, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The additional testing requirement had been in effect since December 28.
***As more Norwegians become less worried about Corona infection (see below), they’re being warned that they they shouldn’t relax because the effects of “long Covid” can linger for months. A 58-year-old Norwegian outdoors enthusiast known for being in excellent physical shape caught Covid late last summer and didn’t suffer much initially, but now she’s still battling fatigue, balance and concentration problems. Newspaper Aftenposten reported how Line Mork is suffering the effects of long Covid and hasn’t been able to work since September. Even though few are falling seriously ill from the new Omicron variant, it’s long-term effects remain unknown.
***Around half of all Norwegians aren’t so worried about becoming infected with the Corona virus any longer. A new survey suggests they’re at least “less afraid” of testing positive for Corona than they were when the pandemic began. The survey, conducted by research firm Norstat for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), found that 45 percent questioned claimed they are “little or very little concerned” about catching Corona. Those least worried were in the age group 50- to 59, while men were less worried about Corona than women.
The survey can reflect confidence in the effect of vaccines, not least since well over 90 percent of all adult Norwegians are fully vaccinated, many with three shots. NRK reported that others point to how the now-dominant Omicron variant doesn’t make people as sick as the earlier Delta variant, for example, and fewer Norwegians need to be hospitalized. One psychologist, Peder Kjos, also told NRK that he thinks “people are tired of being afraid” and want to start living more normally again. “We have mastered this quite well, we’ve stood together, things are still functioning and we’re better equipped to meet this thing,” Kjos told NRK. “Yes, a pandemic is terrible, but we’re handling it. That contributes a lot to reducing anxiety.”
***Public health institute FHI doesn’t think children as young as five need to be vaccinated against the Corona virus, but vaccine will be offered to all aged five to 11 from the end of January. Vaccine has already been offered to everyone over age 12 since September. There won’t be any general recommendation to parents to vaccinate their children, though: “Since the illness isn’t serious for children, there’s really no strong reason to vaccinate them,” Dr Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of FHI told newspaper Aftenposten. Parents who nonetheless want to vaccinate their children will now be able to do so.
***Norway would have faced a winter of rapidly rising Corona infection even if the government hadn’t relaxed restrictions this week. Public health institute FHI warns that up to 50,000 more Norwegians are likely to become infected no matter what the government does. “An Omicron-driven winter wave is impossible to stop,” FHI wrote in a series of reports released this week, “but it can be possible to reduce its height.” They stress how Omicron is more contagious than earlier variants and can spread much more quickly, also among those vaccinated.
Health authorities reported 11,597 new confirmed cases just in the 24-hour period from Thursday to Friday (January 14). At the same time, however, vaccination remains the best protection against serious illness and well over 90 percent of Norway’s adult population is now vaccinated with at least two doses. Hospital admissions will rise, but health authorities seem confident they can be controlled because Omicron presents a 50 to 70 percent lower risk of hospitalization.
There seems to be an expanding sentiment that “we need to learn to live with the virus,” as one official at national employers’ organization NHO said on NRK Friday morning. FHI expects the Omicron wave to crest by early February, with infection levels declining thereafter.
***Bar and restaurant owners were jubilant after the government announced it would end its ban on serving alcohol as a means of controlling Corona virus infection. Operators of theaters and concert halls were disappointed, however, that no more than 200 people can gather indoors. Lots of performances faced cancellation. “We have room for 750 people in the audience,” Kristian Seltun, head of the National Theater in Oslo, told state broadcaster NRK after the government eased its strict Corona containment measures Thursday night. “200 is better than (the current) 50, but we think it would be safe to allow more people in.” Emails were already rolling in to the thousands who bought tickets for a long-awaited concert at Oslo Spektrum by the popular but retiring band Vazelina Bilopphøggers. Their farewell concert was initially scheduled for last March 2020, only to be postponed again and again, now until October of this year. Organizers of the Tromsø International Film Festival, however, were glad they can at least sell 200 tickets to each showing next week. The annual festival begins Monday, albeit in a still-scaled-down version.
***Corona virus infection levels in Norway set yet another record on Thursday, when health authorities reported another 11,825 confirmed cases in the last 24 hours. That comes after 9,622 confirmed cases in a 24-hour period on Wednesday, the highest numbers since the pandemic began. Authorities warn the numbers will likely keep rising. They reported that the highly contagious Omicron variant continues to dominate but it’s not putting more burden on hospitals since most of those infected aren’t seriously ill. That boosted predictions that the Norwegian government would soon relax some of its current restrictions including a ban on serving alcoholic drinks. (It did, see the story here.) Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported how some restaurants were cautiously reopening in Oslo already, in anticipation that they can start pouring again as soon as this weekend.
***The Norwegian government finally seems to be listening to all its critics and willing to relent on some of its toughest anti-infection measures, but only if health authorities issued such recommendations. After a weekend of confusing signals from various government ministers, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party now agrees that bars and restaurants should be able to start serving alcoholic drinks again. He also told state broadcaster NRK early Monday morning that he supports Education Minister Tonje Brenna after she changed her mind and now wants to drop the current “red alert” at high schools. That would allow them to more fully reopen, as long as there’s lots of self-testing among students.
The moves come after lots of complaints from the schools and students themselves. A multi-partisan group of mayors from Norway’s largest cities, meanwhile, had demanded an end to the ban on alcohol because of all the damage it was doing to bars, restaurants and hotels. “If professional advice (from health authorities) opens up for it, we will of course repeal the ban on serving alcohol,” Støre told NRK. He had already promised some relief when the government reevaluates the strict Corona containment measures introduced in mid-December. They came in response to soaring infection levels tied to the new Omicron variant, which continues to dominate in Norway. Another 4,184 new cases were reported overnight, 1,277 more than on Monday morning last week. Støre said the current restrictions will remain in place, however, until the reevaluation is due on Friday.
***More Norwegians are now able to get vaccinated at their local pharmacies, after at least 20 municipalities started using them as an outlet to speed up vaccination programs. Public health institute FHI was worried that the program was too slow, jeopardizing the state’s goal of vaccinating all Norwegians 45 and over with their third booster shot by mid-January. That’s prompted the agreements with pharmacies, which are now offering shots to local residents at state expense in, for example, Brandbu in Gran, Øygarden outside Bergen and Ski in Nordre Follo. News service NTB reports that more pharmacies were expected to start offering vaccinations this week in Asker, Bærum and Drammen. The pharmacy assistance comes in addition to military personnel who are helping in vaccination efforts from Fredrikstad in the south to Ålesund in the northwest.
***Nearly 40,000 vaccine skeptics in Norway changed their minds in December and decided to get their first shot, according to statistics released this week by the public health institute FHI. Health authorities were relieved, and hope more get vaccinated, too. “We have seen an increase in the weeks before Christmas of those accepting our offer and getting vaccinated with their first dose,” Dr Geir Bukholm of FHI told newspaper Dagsavisen. “This is very good news.” A total of 38,820 agreed to finally be vaccinated and Bukholm said there’s also been an increase in those getting their second shots. Around 300,000 adult Norwegians still haven’t been vaccinated. Bukholm hopes they’ll change their minds, too, not least since the majority of those now hospitalized with the Corona virus are not vaccinated.
“Vaccination is the most important means we have of tackling the wave of new Omicron cases we expect will continue over the next several weeks,” Bukholm said. Norway has been setting daily records again this week, with more than 8,000 testing positive within a 24-hour period.
***Infection kept rising as Norwegians headed into the weekend on Friday, but the numbers of those needing to be hospitalized have declined. Health authorities say that’s because the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly but many getting infected have already been vaccinated and thus don’t get so sick. Those who are not vaccinated and become infected now can become seriously ill, and the death toll has been rising.
***New Corona rules have exempted all those fully vaccinated with three shots from having to spend time in quarantine if a close contact tests positive. Those fully vaccinated but living with someone who has tested positive must be antigen-tested every day, or every other day with PCR tests, for seven days in order to avoid quarantine. That’s because infection risk is highest among those in the same household. Third-doses boost immunity and thus protect much better against serious illness, Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday (Jan 6).
***Pressure is building on the government to end its national ban on the serving of alcoholic drinks around Norway. That would likely prompt bars and restaurants to reopen, after they felt compelled to close for lack of business. National employers organization NHO is even threatening a lawsuit against the state, as a means of ending the ban imposed in mid-December. Revenues dove when bars, restaurants and hotels suddenly could no longer serve drinks at the height of the holiday season. Government officials, acting on the advice of health authorities, claimed the ban would discourage social gatherings and thus lower the Corona infection risk.
Instead it’s cost jobs and contributed to making the Labour Party-led government highly unpopular. Even the head of one of Norway’s biggest trade union federations, who sits on Labour’s board, has demanded an end to the ban in order to get thousands of waiters and bartenders back to work. “We have to open up again,” the leader of Fellesforbundet, Jørn Eggum, told newspaper Aftenposten this week. Others have pointed out that Norway is the only country in Europe that’s banned alcohol as a Corona containment measure.
Several proposals to end the ban failed to get through Parliament this week, with the Conservatives contending that tackling the Corona virus is the government’s responsibility. The government has promised a re-evaluation late next week of the tougher measures imposed on December 13, but won’t promise any easing of the rules. Newspaper Dagsavisen was among newspapers editorializing against the ban this week, writing that it appears to be “much too drastic.”
***Norwegians will probably have to live with Corona-related restrictions at least through the winter, predict health authorities, after Norway set yet another record of nearly 8,000 confirmed cases of infection in a single day. Oslo also logged its highest level of infection on Wednesday (1,771), with authorities warning the numbers may be lower than actual infection. The 7,921 positive Corona test results recorded on Wednesday (Jan 5) compare to 3,219 on the same day last week, and are 2,688 higher than on Tueday. The prior daily record set on December 14 was 6,003, indicating that the contagious and now-dominant Omicron variant is sweeping through the country as predicted.
“This was fully expected,” immunologist Dr Anne Spurkland, also a professor at the University of Oslo’s medical school, told state broadcaster NRK. “I think the numbers are low because there’s a lot of underreporting. I think the (infection) wave is bigger than the contures we’re seeing now.” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate agreed, adding that many are beginning to test themselves again after a lull during the holidays. Health authorities have expected rising infection throughout January and into February.
***Despite a sharp rise in official infection numbers on Wednesday, calls also keep rising for an end to strict Corona containment measures that have shut down most bars and restaurants. A ban on serving alcoholic drinks made it uneconomical to remain open, because of all the revenues lost despite state compensation offered. The ban is the only one of its kind in Europe and hotly disputed. Government officials are due to re-evaluate their strict Corona rules next week. They’re under pressure to at least allow drinks serving until 10pm, so that restaurants can offer wine with dinner.
***School children and youth all over Norway faced mass testing for the Corona virus before schools reopened on Tuesday. Only those testing negative were allowed to attend classes, but some health care experts don’t think the rapid tests being used are reliable and that infection will spread anyway. “The quality of the rapid (antigen) testing is so poor that we can’t rely on them,” Professor Elling Ulvestad at Haukeland University Hospital in Begen told newspaper Aftenposten. Teachers and other workers at schools and day care centers (only 20 percent of whom have received third doses of booster vaccine so far) are nervous as well, even though they’re also being tested as part of state and local Corona containment measures. In Oslo alone, the testing is demanded of around 83,400 children and youth, 9,000 teachers and 10,700 workers at day care centers.
Labour organizations had warned against reopening the schools, since infection levels are still rising, and have complained that local officials aren’t following professional advice. “There’s no doubt that the schools have been viewed as a very infection-prone place to be,” said Therese Thyness Fagerhaug of the labour federation Utdanningsforbundet. High school students, meanwhile, have complained that the state is being too strict in only allowing reopening at the “red alert” level. That severely restricts the numbers of students allowed to attend classes and involves more digital instruction. Education Minister Tonje Brenna of the Labour Party was unrelenting, arguing that reopening at the “yellow” level wouldn’t adequately limit infection in practice.
***Current Corona restrictions that have again shut down Oslo’s once-thriving bar and restaurant business are being questioned by the leader of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party. He claims he supports the national restrictions issued by the government that’s led by his own party, but complained to newspaper Aftenposten during the New Year’s weekend that they’re “making people too suspicious” of one another. “First we blamed the ski tourists (coming home from the Alps last year), then suspicions fell on the immigrant population and the russ (partying high-school seniors),” Johansen said. “The longer we have this shutdown, the higher conflict levels will rise. We can’t continue with this much longer.” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour Party, agreed with Johansen that Oslo (or other cities) “can’t be closed a single day longer than necessary” but confirmed the restrictions will continue at least until January 14.
***Thousands of Norwegian spent the Christmas- and New Year holidays at their cabins or vacation homes in the mountains this year, with the pandemic expected to send prices for the so-called hytter even higher in the year ahead. The popular holiday homes are more valuable than ever before, not least after travel abroad has become complicated and anti-infection measures have shut entertainment venues in many Norwegian cities. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reports that nearly 15,000 more holiday homes were sold during 2021, adding to a boom that began even before the pandemic. For a short while last year, officials controversially banned Norwegians from visiting their hytter, for fear of overburdening local health care services in rural areas. The ban was lifted after lots of complaints and now many think it’s better to spend time at the hytte instead of at home in the city where infection rates are high. Oslo, for example, remains the epicenter of the pandemic in Norway, with all bars and most restaurants closed and other restrictions in place.
It’s all created what one real estate broker called a “surrealistic” market for the popular holiday homes, many of which are now spacious log cabins with all the comforts of home. Last year’s record of 14,589 hytte sales during 2020 was broken just before Christmas, when new figures recorded 14,687 sales with perhaps more before New Year’s Day. Prices are up an average 7.4 percent, to NOK 2.48 million (USD 281,000). In popular areas like Hemsedal, hytte prices average NOK 6.1 million. The hytte boom has created a new industry and lots of jobs, with demand high for carpenters and other skilled workers, while environmentalists are alarmed over all the large developments are destroying the nature and disturbing wildlife.
***Norway’s latest wave of Corona virus infection has prompted cancellation of annual New Year fireworks displays in some cities but ignited them in others. While city officials in Trondheim, Drammen and Kristiansand have dropped fireworks to discourage crowds from gathering, other cities like Bergen, Tromsø and Stavanger were planning to move forward with their shows in order to discourage private fireworks that can cause injuries. Oslo, where infection remains highest, has also dropped its fireworks display for the second year in a row, but newspaper Aftenposten reported it wasn’t because of infection control measures this year. The City Council simply didn’t set aside any funding.
***Sweden’s new and tougher border control isn’t only irritating Norwegians but also Swedish merchants and officials who rely on Norwegians crossing the border to shop. New rules have resulted in lots of Norwegians being turned back or facing mandatory and expensive Corona virus testing. Many weren’t aware that results of a self- or rapid antigen test aren’t good enough.
Swedish authorities tightened entry rules from December 28 in an effort to halt imported infection, much to the irritation of retailers in Strömstad, a popular Swedish shopping town for Norwegians. Their business has declined markedly since everyone arriving in Sweden, including those from other Nordic countries, must now present a negative PCR test result not older than 48 hours in addition to other documentation. Only Swedish citizens and foreigners residing in Sweden are exempted from the new testing requirement, a rule Strömstad Mayor Kent Hansson called “unreasonable” on Thursday. Many Norwegian communities bordering Sweden now refuse to offer testing for those who only want to go shopping in Sweden, meaning those crossing the border must pay for private testing. That can cost as much as NOK 2,500 (USD 270).
State broadcaster NRK reported that traffic over the border at the popular crossing at Svinesund had noticeably declined after the testing requirement began on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, however, NRK reported that while controls had been strict at Svinesund and Meråker in Trøndelag, travelers at other border stations were waved through or that the stations didn’t appear to be staffed.
***Norway’s state-financed hospitals have had to postpone hundreds of operations in recent weeks, because of a lack of intensive care capacity that’s currently overburdened by Corona patients. Doctors won’t risk having to send other non-Corona patients to intensive care as well. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the state-run hospitals have carried out at least 1,500 fewer operations over the past three weeks than they performed during the same weeks in December 2019, before the pandemic began.
Both elective surgery and necessary operations have been postponed at at an average of 524 a week. In addition come operations performed on an out-patient basis, also because of reduced capacity resulting from the Corona virus and a lack of staff, many out on sick leave themselves. Capacity also needs to be reserved for emergency situations. The postponements “don’t put lives in danger, but many patients have to accept living for a longer period with a loss of function or chronic pain,” said the chief of orthopedics at one hospital in Oslo.
***Corona restrictions forced families into some creative Christmas celebrations around Norway again this year, with some even setting up screens on dinner tables to share holiday meals digitally. Infections levels, however, have sunk after peaking last week, and fewer people have had to be hospitalized. Recent numbers from state public health institute FHI declined during the holiday weekend, even though that also may reflect less testing. FHI director Dr Camilla Stoltenberg has warned that it’s “important folks don’t get too relaxed” about infection rules, warning that the government may need to impose even stricter rules because of uncertainty around the new Omicron variant of the virus. Danish health authorities, for example, reported another spike in the infection rate and tougher rules, with Norwegian authorities warning that developments in Norway have closely followed those in Denmark. There have been more optimistic reports, though, that those infected with Omicron don’t get as sick and haven’t needed to be hospitalized.
Oslo remains the epicenter of the virus in Norway, with the highest numbers of confirmed infection, hospital admissions and deaths. The capital’s hospitalizations of 7.6 per 100,000 residents in mid-December compared to 5.9 in Vestland, 5.7 in Vestfold and Telemark, 5 in Troms og Finnmark, 4.8 in Viken, 3.9 in Agder and 2.7 in Rogaland.
***Norwegian pharmacies have received new stocks of rapid Corona testing packets, after running out of them last week. Nearly 200,000 test packets were sold just before the holidays began, as cold season prompted sniffly Norwegians to check whether they’d been infected by the Corona virus. Several municipalities doled out free testing kits, but health authorities then asked them to put a priority on health care personnel and those aged seven to 18. That forced most everyone else to buy their own testing kits before Christmas dinners began that included guests outside immediate households.
***The Omicron variant of the Corona virus may have arrived in Norway even before it was first discovered in South Africa, reported newspaper Aftenposten on Christmas Eve. Researchers at the Norwegian public health institute FHI now think the first case of imported Omicron infection may have shown up around November 17, based on three separate outbreaks that quickly led to it dominating infection statistics by mid-December. FHI has now started publishing Omicron results on the dates testing was done, revealing what it calls a “much more precise and detailed picture” of how the contagious variant grows. Analyses of 55 test results showed at least 18 various genetically related threads in Norway, dating back to November 17 and likely coming from other countries than South Africa.
***Even the new prime minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson, had to cancel a planned holiday trip to Norway this week. Tougher anti-infection restrictions on both sides of the border make it much more complicated to cross, because of requirements for advance registration, negative test results and Corona certificates. Now, with infection higher in Norway than in Sweden, Andersson revealed that she’d been personally affected: “I had planned to travel to Norway for a week,” she said at a pre-Christmas press conference. “I have cancelled it because of the high spread of infection in Norway. It’s of course still possible to travel to Norway, but I chose to cancel.”
***Increasing numbers of Norwegians have been showing up at vaccination centers to receive their first dose, nearly a year after Norway’s vaccination program began. Some have been skeptical of vaccines, others have simply dreaded getting a shot, but they’re finally joining the national effort to ward off serious illness. Newspaper Aftenposten reports that many venturing into the large new vaccination center at the old Munch Museum in Oslo had previously rejected offers of vaccine. “Now there are so many different types of Corona and I got worried,” one woman told Aftenposten. “I think it’s right to get vaccinated now.”
More than 90 percent of Norway’s adult population has received at least two doses of the vaccine, and 80 percent of those over 65 have received three. “We’re now seeing a promising upturn in first-time doses, nearly 2,000 a day last week,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of state public health institute FHI told Aftenposten. “We think it has to do with all the attention on the new outbreaks and the Omicron variant.” FHI reported that first-time vaccinations are rising all over the country.
***Norway’s new national Corona restrictions have forced cancellation of hundreds of thousands of Christmas parties and family gatherings all over the country. That’s good news for many, reports newspaper Aftenposten, who dread much of the annual holiday hype, high expectations and forced socializing with people they otherwise never see during the year. “The pandemic has split up families in smaller groups,” wrote one respondent to a survey carried out both before and after last year’s Corona Christmas. “That was just fine, especially since the part that didn’t celebrate with us is the part I don’t like.” The survey, conducted by research insitute Kifo, also elicited responses that it “was wonderful to avoid a huge Christmas celebration with the whole family,” and that the ban on company Christmas parties and others “made it in fact possible to relax during the holidays.” Another wrote that the ban on large gatherings “allowed plenty of time to be together with those we’re closest to.” The lack of long-distance travel also relieved stress.
***With Omicron infection quadrupling in Norway during the past week, questions are flying over whether current Corona containment measures are working. Top health authorities are themselves in doubt over what’s the best means of bringing infection numbers down. They did subside in some areas during the weekend (see below), but not enough to please authorities like Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the public health institute FHI. “No one believes that the spread of the Omicron variant can be stopped,” she said at a press conference before the Christmas holidays begin from Thursday afternoon, “but everyone hopes the spread can be delayed.”
State health director Dr Bjørn Guldvog said it was too early to conclude whether current national restrictions are adequate. “We think the public’s cooperation in adapting to the national measures works … but infection levels are at a high level in Norway and Omicron is increasing every week.”
***Oslo’s old Munch Museum is now being used as a vaccination center by the City of Oslo, which owns the museum building in Oslo’s Tøyen district. The museum has been closed since October, when the new Munch Museum opened on the city’s eastern waterfront. With Corona infection still rising rapidly, the state urged all municipalities to speed up their vaccination programs. The old Munch Museum provided space needed to offer as many as 1,000 vaccinations a day, most of them third booster shots now being offered to everyone aged 45 and over.
***Infection numbers began to decline a bit during the weekend, with fewer falling ill with the Corona virus nationwide but more continuing to test positive in Oslo, Bergen and several other Norwegian cities. The new Omicron variant remains the culprit. After earlier being able to boast among the lowest infection levels in Europe and the world, both Norway and Denmark were documented late last week as having the steepest increases, also because of Omicron. The two countries’ Corona trends have largely followed one another all along, with both also now plunged back into various forms of lockdown in the midst of the Christmas holidays. Sweden, meanwhile, which had among the highest infection rates in Europe, now has among the lowest. Its new restrictions are now ironically aimed at protecting Swedes from imported infection from its two Scandinavian neighbours. Sweden has managed to largely fend off Omicron, while it’s running rampant in Norway and Denmark.
***The Omicron variant that was first discovered in South Africa and showed up in Norway just a few weeks ago has also complicated Oslo officials’ efforts to track infection. That’s because it’s so contagious, can infect those who are fully vaccinated and often has few symptoms or only those associated with the common cold. Many of those testing positive for Omicron haven’t realized they’re ill and felt protected because they’re fully vaccinated. The vaccinations do, however, protect against serious illness.
***Even a local funeral company has joined the Norwegian government’s latest campaign to promote Corona vaccinations. The company, Verd Begravelse, ran full-page newspaper ads in, for example, Aftenposten, with just one simple line of text posted on an otherwise black background: “It’s too late to change your mind in the grave.” The message was clear: Get vaccinated. More than 90 percent of all adult Norwegians are, with the hold-outs currently accounting for more than half of all those currently hospitalized and filling intensive care wards. Local officials, though, are reporting more cases of people finally showing up for their first shots, and they’re welcomed.
***Education Minister Tonje Brenna says she understands that many schools were closing around Norway and shifting over to digital instruction at home, because of high infection levels. She’d wanted schools to stay open until the Christmas holidays begin December 22, but local communities can make their own decisions based on their own situations. In addition to infection concerns, many schools have very high numbers of teachers, other staff and children already out on sick leave. “Closing schools is a very serious move, both for children and their parents,” Brenna told state broadcaster NRK. “Given the situation, though, I understand the decisions made.”
Brenna wasn’t happy, however, with parents who took matters into their own hands and kept their children home, for fear they’d become infected just before Christmas. “My clear request is to send children and youth to school and to day care centers as long as they remain open,” said Brenna, who represents the Labour Party. Teachers in some areas asked local officials to close schools, based on lack of adequate staffing caused by illness and quarantine requirements. In Oslo, the Labour-led city government initially denied the request, but later changed their minds and closed down all schools in the capital.
***Oslo’s venerable Hotel Continental is among those closing this week, after the government issued much stricter Corona containment measures that cut deeply into the hospitality industry’s revenues. The last guest checked out on Wednesday, the hotel’s historic Theatercaféen had to close at the height of the julebord (Christmas party) season, and more than 150 employees were laid off. A four-week ban on the sale of all alcoholic drinks in bars and restaurants has hit especially hard, with most all other restaurants closing, too, except for take-away meals. “We couldn’t wait for a salary compensation plan (due Friday) when we didn’t know what it would include,” Continental’s director Nina Brandanger told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). She and others in the industry hope the new restrictions will end in mid-January and that business will return quickly. The Scandic hotel chain has also closed hotels and sent out hundreds of lay-off notices to employees.
***Norwegians still hoping to travel home for the holidays were advised to travel early, in order to avoid crowding on public transportation on Lille Juleaften, the day before Christmas Eve. Everyone using public transportation from trams to trains and planes must also remember face masks during the entire trip. “It’s best to plan to leave early and don’t travel on Lille Juleaften (Thursday December 23 this year),” Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health directorate told newspaper VG on Wednesday.
Nakstad also called on everyone to limit social contact during the Christmas and New Year holidays, and before them as well. On a personal note, Nakstad himself is among those having to cancel planned book signings in bookstores during the rest of the Christmas shopping season. Nakstad wrote the book Kode Rød (Code Red) about the pandemic, and planned to meet the public and sign books next week. Publisher Gyldendal has, however, called off all book signings because of the infection threat.
***The Norwegian government rolled out more economic compensation packages to aid businesses, cultural organizations and workers hit hardest by the country’s return to “lockdown light.” Not everyone was satisfied, and enhancements are likely. Meanwhile, earlier compensation programs will be extended, aid to municipalities will be strengthened, businesses can once again apply for loan guaratees and the state will cover the costs of restaurants’ perishable food, for example, that can no longer be served because they’re forced to close for at least the next four weeks. Plans are also underway to provide more salary support for businesses reluctant to lay off workers once again.
Another NOK 1.1 billion will be allocated to compensate cultural organizations and workers who’ve had to cancel concerts, performances and a variety of other special holiday events. Special funding will also be set aside for stimulus packages in early 2022. Special unemployment compensation has also been set aside for those losing their jobs in the latest wave of anti-infection measures. “The new (Corona containment) measures mean more insecurity in the labour market,” said Labour Minister Hadia Tajik at the government’s latest press conference Tuesday. “It’s therefore necessary to extend programs so that folks out of work can be taken care of.”
Neither employer organizations nor left-leaning parties in Parliament were pleased by the compensation offers so far, however, saying they were “not good enough” given another round of forced business closures at the height of their most important season of the year. Others complained of a lack of clarity in measures aimed at preserving jobs.
***Norwegians face even more anti-infection measures, similar to a “lockdown-light,” as the new Omicron variant of the Corona virus keeps spreading. Norway now has the highest rate of infection in Europe, with nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of the highly contagious Omicron, which has now been detected nationwide. Oslo, where Omicron first turned up in Norway and infected scores of fully vaccinated guests at a Christmas party, has registered the highest number of cases so far, with 472 as of Monday morning. The surrounding Viken County had the next-largest number (233), with a total of 958 registered around the country so far.
“There’s still great uncertainty tied to the Omicron variant’s characteristics,” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told newspaper Dagbladet heading into the weekend. “We can’t rule out that there can be a need for stricter measures.” Nor could either Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre or Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol, who repeated such warnings throughout the weekend. Støre confirmed the new restrictions at a press conference Monday night.
What’s most alarming is that vaccines aren’t protecting against Omicron infection, although they are believed to prevent serious illness. Both Støre and the rest of the government have been reluctant to impose more regulations, because of the effect they have on the economy and the threat they pose to jobs. No one wants to be laid off again just before Christmas, but bars and restaurants were likely to close. Støre promised that businesses affected by the latest crackdown would be eligible for state compensation.
It’s the growing burden on hospitals and health care workers that’s forcing more restrictions. All concerts, parties and other indoor gatherings with more than 600 people attending have already been cancelled, along with many others. “If the situation develops in an even more serious direction, we may need to shut down society either completely or partially,” the state Health Directorate wrote in its latest professional evaluation.
***A wave of cancellations tied to the reinstatement of strict anti-infection measures last week set off predictable demands for state compensation for businesses most affected. They include restaurants, hotels and the entertainment sector, and the government gave in to the demands including a measure that will help cover employers’ salary costs so they won’t have to lay off workers again. Many restaurant owners in particular fear that they’ll lose their workers permanently if they have to lay off again, and won’t have enough staff when normal operations can resume. The government had initially resisted taking on the costs of salary support, but Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum reversed his position on the grounds Norway’s economy otherwise has rebounded: “We’re in a very different situation now than when the Corona crisis began.” Long-term damage to the restaurant business, he noted, could be more costly than compensation packages now.
***The recent infection rate spike has created huge demand for testing, resulting in lines so long at testing stations that many Norwegians have opted to buy expensive self-testing kits. Supplies ran out at pharmacies all over the country: “We had no idea there’d be such demand,” one pharmacy manager told state broadcaster NRK. The Omicron alarm and daily infection records has since mostly emptied warehouses, even though health authorities bought more than 10 million self-tests this autumn. Then came the fourth wave, with Oslo city officials still planning to open three new testing centers this week.
***The leader of Oslo’s city government is the latest top Norwegian politician to fall ill with the Corona virus. Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party confirmed himself on social media Friday that he was in isolation, and he was later confirmed to be infected with the new Omicron strain. “On Wednesday evening I developed symptoms like a cold and got tested,” Johansen wrote. A follow-up test was also positive, and one of Johansen’s colleagues has tested positive as well. All journalists and others attending Johansen’s press conference Thursday have been alerted and urged to get tested themselves. “I feel fairly well,” Johansen wrote. “But I’m in isolation regardless.” His positive results come just after former Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s husband also tested positive (see below) and after Norway set yet another infection record on Friday, with 5,355 confirmed cases nationwide in the 24-hour period ending at midnight on Thursday. That’s 1,215 more cases than during the same period a week earlier.
***Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg had to go into quarantine this week, after her husband Sindre Finnes was confirmed to have become infected with the Corona virus. He’s in isolation at the couple’s apartment in Oslo while Solberg is in quarantine at another unspecified location. Solberg told newspaper VG that she has so far tested negative to the virus and has no symptoms. “But I’m keeping to myself and am a bit bored in the home office.” Finnes, who works for the business trade association Norsk Industri, told state broadcaster NRK that he first felt like he had a bad cold on Monday. His symptoms became more like influensa on Tuesday. “I’m working from home but was half-time on sick leave the first few days,” he said. He added that he doesn’t know where or how he became infected, or which strain of the virus he has: “I have called all my close contacts and none of them has tested positive.”
***The City of Bergen rolled out more new anti-infection rules on Thursday, extending mandatory use of face masks to all indoor public places. All new confirmed cases of the Corona virus will be handled as if they’re the highly contagious Omicron strain, meaning mandatory isolation for the ill person and 10 days of quarantine for all family members and other close contacts. Schools with virus outbreaks can revert to home-schooling, and the opening hours of all day-care centers and after-school programs will be reduced. “We have to try to secure an overview of the situation and try to control it,” stated chief medical officer Dr Trond Egil Hansen. “With such dramatically high infection numbers as today (471), we’re losing an overview of how infection is being transmitted.”
***The highly contagious Omicron strain of the Corona virus has now been confirmed in Oslo, Rogaland, Trøndelag and Viken counties. Several other cases are suspected but confirming them takes time. The actual number of confirmed cases stood at 43 as of Thursday afternoon.
***Norway kept registering more daily infection records this week, with 5,143 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus logged overnight on Wednesday and then 5,259 more on Thursday. They’re the highest numbers in a single day since the pandemic began. News bureau NTB reported that an average of 3,446 new cases had been registered every day during the past week. That’s up from 3,003 during the prior week, according to the state health directorate. The high numbers come just after the Norwegian government launched a new crackdown on rising infection levels that are likely to spoil the Christmas holiday season once again. The main concern now is a rise in hospital admissions and the numbers of Corona patients needing intensive care. That in turn has forced postponement of other scheduled operations all over the country.
***A young Norwegian football fan found out just how difficult and risky it can be to head out traveling as Corona containment measures tighten up again. He not only missed the football match he’d wanted to see but wound up in hotel quarantine for 10 days at his own expense. Newspaper Aftenposten reported how fully vaccinated Yngve Olaussen, age 27, flew from Norway to England last Monday to see a Liverpool-Everton football match on Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, however, he received a message on his phone from British health authorities that he had to go into isolation for 10 days. If he didn’t, he’d have to pay a thousand-pound fine (around NOK 12,000).
The vaccinations he’d had in Norway didn’t qualify him to avoid isolation. British rules demand that all close contacts of anyone infected with the new Omicron strain must self-isolate regardless of vaccination status. He wasn’t told with whom he’d had close contact, but thinks it must have been someone on board his flight. Now he must pay another NOK 7,000 for his hotel room in Liverpool, and all food must be delivered to his room. It didn’t help that he has no Corona symptoms and tested negative upon arrival. “It’s difficult to evaluate how various countries carry out their border control, quarantine rules and border testing,” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told Aftenposten. “Rules can also change quickly.”
***Both Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Norwegian Air are reinstating rules calling for use of face masks on board all flights again. SAS demands them starting this week, while Norwegian initially was recommending their use by all passengers. Face masks are already required on public transportation in the Oslo metropolitan area, inside stores while shopping and inside health care institutions.
***More long lines formed at Corona testing stations over the weekend, with some people waiting as long as two hours outdoors in freezing temperatures. New regulations and virus concerns more than doubled the numbers of people feeling a need to get tested in Oslo. The long lines prompted health authorities to revise their guidelines for testing: Instead of getting tested at the slightest concern about infection, they were urging Oslo residents to only join the queue if they actually felt sick, and then make sure they were warmly dressed. The goal was to shorten waiting time and relieve pressure on health care personnel. “Many have been getting tested with the thought it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Dr Miert Skjoldborg Lindboe, chief medical officer for Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen, “but you should have a reason, like symptoms or a request from infection-trackers.”
***Oslo has been posting record numbers of confirmed infection almost daily, and concerns are high that the new Omicron strain is spreading quickly. One Oslo doctor in charge of infection control in the Vestre Aker district said on Monday that she doesn’t think current restrictions are strong enough. Nearly 700 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus (691) were recorded during the 24 hours ending at midnight Sunday, fewer than on the same day last week but still high.
***Long lines formed at Norway’s borders again on Friday, after new anti-Omicron infection measures took effect from midnight Thursday. The measures, which include mandatory testing at border crossings, are aimed at trying to control the spread of the newest strain of the Corona virus after it made a startling debut in Norway this week (see below). The Omicron infection that swept through a company Christmas party (julebord) last weekend is believed to stem from one employee who’d recently been in South Africa, where Omicron was first discovered. That prompted the government to finally reimpose more restrictions, including proof of vaccination and testing when entering the country. Lines were longest at Norway’s gateway airport in Oslo, OSL Gardermoen, and at the busy border crossing from Sweden on the E6 highway at Svinesund. The new restrictions at the Svinesund crossing have also disrupted border trade at large nearby shopping centers on the Swedish side that cater to Norwegians because of Sweden’s lower prices: “We did not see this coming,” said Ole Jørgen Lind, who runs the large Maximat grocery store at Nordby. “I’m absolutely certain this is going to hurt sales.”
***Local officials in Sweden may be relieved that the hordes of Norwegians coming to shop on their side of the border are likely to thin. They’d already seen rising infection in the area that extends south to Strömstad, and suspect it came with holiday shoppers from Norway, where 4,140 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus were registered on Thursday alone. That set yet another new record for a 24-hour period.
***More cases of the new Omicron strain of the Corona virus were suspected in Trondheim heading into the weekend. The city’s chief medical officer, Dr Tove Røsstad, said they involved nine people who, in connection with some traveling, have been defined as close contacts of another who has tested positive to the strain. She fears they were infected on the same airline flight. The most common symptoms of the Omicron strain are headache, sore throats and coughing, most of which are viewed as mild.
***Even after more than half the guests at a company Christmas party in Oslo were infected by the new Omicron strain of the Corona virus, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre still wouldn’t completely halt the often large events where alcoholic drinks flow freely. “Everyone must make their own evaluations” over whether to attend, Støre said at a press conference Thursday (Dec 2). All the newly infected guests at the party, called a julebord, were also fully vaccinated, but Støre continued to claim that vaccine remains everyone’s best means of protecting themselves.
“It is possible to host a julebord and respect the rules (about staying a meter apart or else using a face mask) at the same time,” Støre insisted. He urged Norwegians to “use common sense,” adding that he thinks most understand distancing needs and a need to “limit your near contacts.” His government still won’t ban the julebord season this year, for fear of the economic consequences for bars and restaurants, but has limited privately organized events to 100 guests.
***The Omicron strain of the Corona virus has made its debut in Norway, and more confirmed cases are expected. Four people who have recently been in South Africa tested positive for the variant (omikron in Norwegian), officials announced on Wednesday. Two of those infected live in Øygarden outside Bergen and returned from South Africa on November 20, according to the local infection prevention officer, Dr Bjørg Møllerløkken. That’s before alarms rang about the variant (see below) that was first discovered in South Africa, and before Norwegian officials demanded that anyone returning from South Africa be placed in hotel quarantine.
Møllerkøkken said local officials have “an overview” of close contacts of those infected, who already are recovering. The two others confirmed with the Omicron variant landed at Norway’s gateway airport OSL Gardermoen November 26 and 28, and are in isolation at a nearby quarantine hotel. The variant is known to spread quickly, with newspaper VG reporting that a new outbreak of the Corona virus in Oslo’s affluent Frogner area may also be the Omicron variant. A resident of Moss is also suspected to be infected with Omicron.
“I can understand that this can seem frightening to some,” Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol told reporters, “but we have been prepared for this and have plans to handle infection quickly.” Norwegian health authorities also don’t think those infected with Omicron will become seriously ill, especially if they’re fully vaccinated.
***Political quarreling over infection measures, or the lack thereof, has emerged openly in Norway. After 20 months of support and solidarity for the former government’s strategy, and praise for how it handled the Corona crisis, the new government faces criticism and is trying hard to fend it off. Conflicts played out live in Parliament and on national TV Tuesday (Nov 30), when Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre addressed the current Corona situation and his government’s plans for tackling record-high levels of infection. The prime minister and Oslo’s city government leader, both from the Labour Party, want to keep Norway open and have so far rejected stricter measures that would have high economic and social costs.
Politicians from the Conservative Party, meanwhile, are alarmed by weeks of rising infection levels, hospitalizations and deaths. Even before the Conservatives’ leader and former prime minister Erna Solberg could voice her concerns in Parliament, though, the leader of Labour’s parliamentary delegation Rigmor Aasrud lashed out at government critics from the podium. She claimed Norway “can now tolerate more infection” than it could earlier, blasting “empty” criticism from politicians in opposition who were “more interested in generating headlines.” MP Marit Arnstad of the Center Party, which shares government power with Labour, also expressed “amazement” at the criticism from the opposition in Parliament, noting the critics had not come up with alternative proposals of their own.
Solberg shot back, urging firmer rules and not just recommendations that many Norwegians are not following. She also warned against relying too heavily on vaccines that may not be offering as much protection as previously thought, since many of those now in hospital are fully vaccinated. Solberg still thinks her successors in government are offering too little, too late. She already had editorial support from several political commentators who also called this week for tougher measures, not just recommendations. “This is the new government’s first Corona test,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen. “We’re all weary now, and tired of restrictions … but face masks should probably be mandatory, and we expect other preventive measures.”
***Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen urged local residents on Monday (Nov 29) to go to Christmas parties and “don’t cancel” other social plans, even as the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the newly dubbed Omikron strain of the Corona virus as posing a new and “very high” global risk. Neither Johansen, who represents the Labour Party, nor Norway’s Labour-led national government, have been willing to impose tough anti-infection measures despite another rise in confirmed cases of the virus.
Johansen’s additional “don’t panic” warning on national radio Monday morning also came just as Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, leader of the public health institute FHI, was conceding that the new strain of the virus may already have arrived in Norway. “We still have to see how this new variant behaves in a country like Norway,” Stoltenberg told state broadcaster NRK. “We have cold weather and winter and it’s the season for this kind of infection, but also a population that’s vaccinated to a higher degree.” Stoltenberg thinks Corona has become “less dangerous” because fewer people infected now become seriously ill. FHI, however, remains “very uncertain” about the new overall risk.
Johansen, meanwhile, has markedly changed his approach from the days when he repeatedly wagged his finger at press conferences and imposed strict rules and lockdown measures in Oslo. Now he seems more concerned, as has the national government, about the effect of strict Corona measures on the economy. There’s a new political reluctance (see below) to force bars, restaurants, concert halls and other social gathering places to curtail operations or outright close. “I think the most important thing is to breathe easier and not exaggerate the situation, or demand lots of measure that we don’t need,” Johansen told NRK. “We’re acting based on the facts we have now, on the degree of vaccination, infection and admission to hospitals. None of that suggests we should invoke drastic measures.”
***The Labour-led Oslo- and national government’s reluctance to impose national anti-Corona measures has met firm and loud opposition from top Conservative Party politicians. They blasted Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen’s refusal, at least so far, to crack down on rising infection rates in the national capital, and even urge Oslo residents to go out and enjoy holiday parties. “We are worried that we’ll have to have even more invasive measures if we don’t rein in things now,” Erlend Svardal Bøe of the Conservative Party said Monday (Nov 28) during a heated debate with Johansen on NRK’s morning radio talk show Politisk kvarter. Member of Parliament Tone Wilhelhelmsen Trøen of the Conservatives also has been among those criticizing the Labour-led governments’ handling of the ongoing pandemic. There’s still a chance, however, that Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre will heed calls from other mayors and regional governments around the country to impose tougher national rules, during a scheduled address to Parliament on Tuesday.
***Soaring Corona infection rates and concern over a new strain of the virus have prompted more calls for tougher national measures in Norway. The Oslo Stock Exchange was among those being battered all over the world on Friday, and the oil price fell all week long. Norway’s North Sea crude was selling for less than USD 77 a barrel Friday afternoon, down from USD 86 just a few weeks ago, and the main index of the Oslo Stock Exchange fell 3.3 percent. Some analysts think the renewed market turbulence may even cancel the Norwegian central bank’s plans to raise interest interest rates, as a new economic chill added to cold temperatures as winter sets in.
The new Norwegian government hasn’t wanted to reimpose stricter national infection control measures, worrying that would halt the country’s economic recovery. Hospital bosses, all the mayors in Vestland County and now many in southeast Norway as well are, however, pleading for them in order to curb infection. Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said on Friday that she was worried about the new and highly contagious virus variant from South Africa that’s already prompted the UK and EU to halt flights from six countries in southern Africa. Kjerkol said state officials were working to gather more information on the variant and evaluating various measures. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre plans to address Parliament on the Corona situation on Tuesday.
***Norwegians are being warned against foreign travel, not by their government but by travel insurance company Tryg. Rising Corona infection levels all over Europe mean more countries may impose shutdowns or even close borders, with Denmark tightening its entry rules on Friday. “Those who take the chance of traveling out of Norway now can risk their trip being cancelled or greatly limited because of new Corona rules at their destination,” Tryg wrote in a press release that was not popular with tour arrangers, hotels or airlines. “We recommend that people don’t plan travel abroad right now, but wait until the pandemic subsides.” Tryg officials also warned that travel insurance won’t cover costs tied to national Corona measures, like the closures ordered in Austria this week.
***All the mayors in Vestland County have sent a letter to Norway’s state Health Directorate, asking for stricter Corona virus containment measures at the national level. They all stated they were “extremely worried” about ever-rising infection rates, and don’t think regional restrictions are sufficient. State authorities themselves reported that an additional 4,575 new confirmed cases of the Covid-19 were registered on Thursday. They blamed the unusually high number on additional cases from Tuesday that mistakenly weren’t included in earlier figures.
Bergen already has imposed face mask requirements and other stricter measures, but now several other west coast municipalities claim they’re having trouble coordinating strategies and communicating them. They also complain their local health care services are under pressure and capacity is at the bursting point. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced Thursday that he would address Parliament on the Corona situation in Norway early next week. His new Labour-Center Party government has been reluctant to impose tougher national measures because of what they’d cost society and a recovering economy.
***Oslo’s city government now wants everyone to wear face masks when riding on public transportation, in taxis and when shopping in stores. The doors on Norway’s metro, trams and buses will also start opening automatically again, so passengers won’t have to touch any buttons. Rising levels of Corona infection prompted Oslo officials to start reimposing infection control measures on Wednesday. Mass testing of children will continue, all health care workers will be offered a third dose of Corona vaccine and the city will start offering vaccinations at some schools and workplaces.
The measures are recommended, not required, and critics were already complaining that they’re not strict enough. Both the national and local governments remain reluctant to reimpose restrictions that can harm a recovering economy and threaten jobs again. “Everyone in Oslo knows the price of invasive measures,” said Raymond Johansen of the Labour, who heads Oslo’s city government, at a meeting on Wednesday. “If we do more than is really needed it can cause great damage, but we do have to act.” His government is still refraining from introduction of Corona certificates that would require proof of vaccination to enter many public places.
***Norway’s fear of imported infection played out last week, when an Air India flight on its way to Chicago asked to land in Oslo because of a medical emergency on board. The aircraft was kept well away from the airport’s main terminal, as were its roughly 300 passengers. Since the flight came from a country with high Corona infection, Norway’s borders effectively closed to all on board. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that after hours of waiting, frustrated passengers were finally allowed to leave the aircraft, which was parked in a closed-off area of OSL Gardermoen. An OSL spokesperson said they were given food, drink and access to restrooms while airport staff arranged transport to a quarantine hotel. The passenger with the medical emergency had died before the plane landed, and the body was taken off the aircraft to arrange for transport back to India. Everyone on board ended up spending an unwanted day at the Oslo airport until the Air India flight could finally take off again and continue to Chicago, a day late. The incident occurred just as Norway’s government was announcing stricter border control for everyone else entering Norway, after 9,000 cases of imported infection have been registered since late August.
From November 26, everyone arriving in Norway including Norwegians, must pre-register via the government website entrynorway.no. Travelers must carry a confirmation of their registration that can be shown to police at the border. Travelers must also produce a valid corona certificate documenting vaccination. Those who are not vaccinated must present negative test results from within the prior 24 hours.
***The head of intensive care at one of Norway’s largest hospitals confronted Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol on Monday, during a visit they made to Akershus University Hospital just northeast of Oslo. He’s not at all satisfied with how they’re handling the Corona crisis, as infection keeps spreading and hospital admissions keep rising. “It’s depressing when you just say that everyone should stop shaking hands, and that (Corona containment) measures are to be set by local communities,” Dr Ole Kristian Fossum told Støre and Kjerkol, as TV cameras rolled. Fossum claims they “have not shown that they’re capable of imposing infection control measures that work. We need help from the state health authorities.” He expressed his frustration to both Støre and Kjerkol, and strongly suggested that mandatory use of face masks would be a “simple measure” that would help. He thinks more such measures can contribute towards preventing a new lockdown like those now occurring in Austria and elsewhere around Europe.
Støre’s Labour-Center government remains reluctant to impose stricter measures, for fear of the effect on the economy. Fossum, however, said it was “difficult” to see everything open while hospitals in many Norwegian cities are under pressure. Several are postponing operations, also because they’re struggling with many staff members out sick, infected both at home and on the job. Kjerkol countered that “we have not confirmed that national face mask requirements would be effective or correct” on a national basis.
***New Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre also had to tolerate some criticism from neighbouring countries when he met fellow government leaders at a recent Nordic Council gathering in Copenhagen. Nordic relations have been strained at times during the pandemic, with Swedish politician Hans Wallmark of the conservative party Moderaterna characterizing Norway’s closed borders as “pandemic nationalism.” He claimed it was important to stop infection, not people. Støre wasn’t in charge then, but defended former Prime Minister Erna Solberg by noting that imported infection was a real threat. Norway is suffering consequences of its border restrictions now, though, with many Swedish workers deciding not to return to jobs in Norway and lots of other foreign labour staying home, too. That’s led to a labour shortage in many fields in Norway. Now, with infection rising in Norway, some border restrictions are also reappearing (see below).
***Complaints are rising that Norwegian communities aren’t offering booster shots of the Corona vaccine quickly enough. Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol conceded on Friday that she wants the local governments responsible for vaccination programs to “speed up” vaccinations, especially for those aged 65 and over. She claimed she wasn’t sure why booster shot programs were lagging. She claimed local communities have been shipped the vaccine doses necessary and she claimed that she wants everyone over 65 to get a booster shot by Christmas. The rest of the population will be offered third shots throughout 2022.
Kjerkol and Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl held another Corona press conference Friday, in which they rolled out some stricter Corona control measures that were quickly criticized by some medical professionals as not being nearly strict enough. “We want to keep society as open as possible,” Kjerkol countered, as she resisted imposition of new national measures and largely left it up to local governments to make their own rules. She did urge all Norwegians, however, to “do more to control infection,” including staying home at the first sign of any Corona symptoms, getting tested and refraining from handshakes or hugs.
***Bergen has registered a new infection record and lines are long for those over 65 who qualify for a third booster shot. In Trondheim, local officials want the state to reimpose Corona-related controls at a nearby border crossing to Sweden, in an effort to limit imported infection. State broadcaster NRK reported on Thursday, meanwhile, that a total of 209 new cases of the Corona virus in Bergen were confirmed in the 24 hours from midnight Tuesday to midnight Wednesday. That set a new record for daily infection and city officials are evaluating new virus containment measures including mandatory use of face masks in public. In Trondheim, where infection rates are also high, municipal director Morten Wolden is asking the government to reinstate border control to hinder imported infection. “With a new ‘all-time high’ in Norway yesterday (see below), we need to ward off a new round of imported infection,” Wolden told NRK. He wants everyone arriving to be able to show documentation of full vaccination and/or quarantine rules.
***Norway’s state health directorate has cancelled its own large Christmas party for employees, because of the recent rise in Corona infection. The health authorities had planned the party for months, as a way of thanking employees for nearly two years of extra hard work during the Corona crisis that even they thought was winding down. The plan was for everyone to gather in the Health Directorate’s own headquarters next Friday for a longed-for celebration after last year’s party was also cancelled along with most others. “It was very difficult to cancel, we were all looking forward to it,” assistant director Olav Valen Slåttebrekk told NRK. “We really felt a need to meet again (after months of home office use) and get back to normal.” After a “total evalution,” though, he and others decided to cancel, citing “a special responsibility to be better safe than sorry.” He denied the directorate was sending any signals to others to do the same: “This was a decision based on an evaluation of our work and responsibility. I’m not giving advice about Christmas parties to Oslo folks.”
***Norway’s public health institute (FHI) confirmed another infection record on Wednesday, after registering fully 2,552 cases of the Corona virus in just one day. FHI also confirmed that new cases of infection, hospitalizations and deaths tied to the virus have risen for the fourth week in a row. “We see that we’re in a period with a rising trend,” Line Vold of FHI (Folkehelse instituttet) told state broadcaster NRK. Vold, in charge of tracking Norway’s key Corona statistics, noted that the increase over the past week is “less steep” than in prior weeks, “but it’s still a rising trend.” If it continues, she said, “we’ll have a relatively high number of hospital admissions in the coming weeks. We therefore want to reverse this trend.”
That suggests another round of Corona-related restrictions looms. The elderly remain the most vulnerable, even though they’re mostly all fully vaccinated. Corona-related deaths registered last week were the highest so far this year. Infection is also rising among children and youth, Fully 11,773 people were registered as being infected last week, up 45.2 percent over the week before. Most of the cases were in Tromsø, Oslo and Trøndelag, where a new strain of the virus has been declared more contagious than earlier strains.
***Intensive care wards at Norwegian hospitals are filling up with Corona patients, as infection levels keep rising around the country. Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) reports its ward is “completely full,” while St Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim has had to postpone operations because of its highest number of Corona patients since the pandemic began. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Tuesday that a third of St Olav’s Corona patients are in its intensive care ward, most of them on respirators. In addition to postponing all planned operations “that can wait,” out-patient consultations and surgical procedures are also being postponed. Only cancer patients, those requiring emergency care and children are exempted. Ahus in Lørenskog, just northeast of Oslo, had nearly double the number of patients needing intensive care as it has intensive beds, but was increasing staffing. State officials in charge of the hospitals have claimed they are closely watching infection- and hospital capacity levels, but there was no immediate response from Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol.
***Oslo plans to start mass testing of children this week, in another effort to lower a sharp rise in Corona virus infection. The goal is to identify those with Corona as opposed to those with common seasonal colds, and hinder the spread of infection. “The most effective way of doing that is through mass testing in the schools,” Raymond Johansen, head of Oslo’s city government, told newspaper Aftenposten. He fears many parents may unwittingly be sending their children to school with the virus, and thus exposing others. He called the testing program “goal-oriented and what we need now.” Like many other cities around Norway, Oslo has seen its infection numbers rise sharply again in recent weeks. The city wants to avoid new shutdowns, though, along with use of other stricter measures like the Corona certificates now allowed by the state government.
***Tromsø became the first Norwegian city to plan “Corona certificates,” after the Norwegian government gave them the authority to do so on Friday. The certificates document their holders’ proof of vaccination and are meant to prevent the spread of Corona infection in public places. Tromsø officials applauded the government’s decision and said the certificates can be required from Tuesday (Nov 16) in order to gain entry to bars, cinemas, theaters or other public gathering places in the northern city. It’s been reeling from a major spike in Corona infection over the past few weeks and city officials had begun to crack down with new Corona restrictions of their own, like preventing people from mingling around bars and demanding table service and face masks. They much prefer being able to use Corona certificates in order to prevent any new forced shutdowns or business disruption. Both local and state authorities now agree that the certificates can help those vaccinated to continue to live more “normally,” and also encourage people who have declined vaccination offers to change their minds.
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre rolled out plans for Corona certificate use in Norway at a press conference Friday (Nov 12), noting that his government “had received a clear message” that communities around Norway “need help in handling infection.” They’ll now be able to demand proof of vaccinations locally. In Trondheim, where infection levels have also been high, Mayor Rita Ottervik said the certificates won’t be demanded. That’s because most of Trondheim’s Corona cases are occurring among school children and their parents. Oslo officials are also hesitant to require the certificates, which have been criticized by some because they can limit individual freedom.
***Even though Norway recorded its highest daily number of new Corona cases ever on Wednesday (Nov 10), Norway’s new government remained unwilling to reimpose any new national Corona containment measures. That seemed to put Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre at odds with the state health directorate, after Støre claimed that “national measures are not the answer.” Støre also seemed to take over for Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkøl when he announced Wednesday afternoon that his government is “closely evaluating the Corona situation together with health authorities and will draw the conclusions that are necessary.” At the same time, though, he said that national measures are not in the picture, contradicting Dr Bjørn Guldvog of the state health directorate who said on the Tuesday that he thinks new restrictions will be necessary (see below).
Støre stressed that Norwegians are now “very well-vaccinated,” despite new reports that there are now more fully vaccinated Corona patients in the hospital than there are Corona patients who were not vaccinated. Instead of imposing new national infection measures, Støre thinks it will be sufficient if everyone feeling ill simply stays home, if those who aren’t vaccinated become so quickly, and if everyone over age 65 gets a third shot. Several regions around Norway including Trondheim and Bergen, meanwhile, are reimposing local Corona containment measures including use of face masks in public and only allowing table serving at bars and restaurants.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Store changed his mind two days later and rolled out new national measures that also give local authorities more authority to control the virus as they see fit.)
***New national Corona containment recommendations are on the way, after Norway’s state Health Director Dr Bjørn Guldvog said he would recommend that the government reimpose some restrictions. The reason: Rising infection levels and pressure on the national health care system. “We see now that the curves are heading upward at full speed,” Guldvog told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday (Nov 9) after another rash of unwelcome statistics. “That will affect planned operations at the hospitals and hurt many other patients. It’s therefore necessary to go through all measures available and see what we can do.” Guldvog said he won’t be recommending any shutdown but rather measures that would hinder so many new cases of the Corona virus. That can include random Corona testing at border crossings including Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen, and programs to make sure health care personnel who are not vaccinated won’t have any contact with patients.
***Norway’s state health directorate has reported the highest number of Corona patients admitted to hospital since last April. The admissions reflect an ongoing increase in new cases of the Corona virus despite Norway’s high vaccination levels, and a new wave of infection this winter is deemed “probable.” A total of 198 patients were in hospital as of Monday (November 8), 25 more than the number just before the weekend. The majority (113) are hospitalized in southeastern Norway (including Oslo), while admissions stood at 32 in Northern Norway, 29 in the western district of the state health care system and 24 in the central district (Helse Midt-Norge). State officials reported that 49 patients are receiving intensive care and 21 are on respirators. “We are following the situation all the time to gauge the burden on hospitals,” Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of public health institute FHI, told news bureau NTB. Norway’s national doctors’ association (Legeforeningen) is alarmed, telling newspaper Aftenposten that “we’re experiencing Corona fatigue. Hospitals are full and the employees are exhausted,” and that’s before flu season gets underway.
***Health care workers in Norway will now also be offered a third dose of the Corona vaccine if they have direct contact with patients. Calls for a third dose have gone out for months, but the government only authoritized third doses last week for those age 65 and over. Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol followed up just before the weekend by offering third doses for health care workers no matter how old they are. She also continued to insist, however, that the government had no plans for any new national Corona-related restrictions, despite a sharp rise in infection levels and hospitalizations in recent weeks.
***Norway is now launching programs for a third dose of Corona vaccine at what’s been described as “full force.” Norwegians with weak immune systems and those over age 65 are first in line to get a booster shot. Several hundred thousand doses of Corona vaccine are being sent out to cities and townships around Norway this week. A total of 96,385 Norwegians had already received a third dose as of October 31, but now the booster shot program will begin in earnest. “Most of the country’s local communities are soon finished with vaccinating all elderly against influensa,” Dr Preven Aavitsland of public health institute FHI told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “Now they can use their resources on Corona vaccinations again.” He said FHI was recommending a third dose for those over 65, “so they’ll have the best protection possible through the winter.” He said there’s low risk of becoming seriously ill with the Corona virus for everyone under 65 who already have received two shots. The booster shot program comes just as Norway is in the midst of another major increase in Corona infection.
***Health authorities in Trondheim are now recommending use of face masks after recording the highest number of new Corona virus cases in a single day since the pandemic began. Health authorities in Bodø, meanwhile, want the government to reimpose national restrictions because of an ongoing rise in Corona infection. Trondheim officials acted on their own Tuesday, as they’re allowed to do on a regional basis, after confirming 172 new Corona cases just among public testing. That’s more than triple the number recorded on Monday, when 46 tested positive, and it was expected to keep rising. The face mask recommendation especially applies on board public transport, Dr Tove Røsstad, Trondheim’s chief medical officer, told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. She’s also recommending social distancing in public.
Infection levels continue to rise nationally as well, mostly in Tromsø, other cities in Northern Norway and in Oslo and its surrounding county, Viken. In the northern city of Bodø, chief medical officer Dr Tor Claudi is concerned enough by the rise in infection that “there’s reason to be worried about the upcoming Christmas holidays.” He thinks national Corona containment measures should be reimposed if the rising infection trend continues. A total of 6,358 new cases of the virus have been registered in the past seven days, even though nearly 90 percent of Norway’s adult population is fully vaccinated.
***Corona complications continue to disrupt international trade and shipments to and from Norway. Ongoing restrictions in some areas, along with a sudden demand for goods after restrictions have been eased in other areas, has thrown the international trade system “out of balance,” according to Norwegians economists at national employer organizations NHO and Virke. Higher prices for raw materials and transport, delayed deliveries and predicted hikes in prices for food and many other items are causing disruptions, especially in deliveries of Christmas merchandise. “It’s probably all related to Corona, in one way or another,” Øystein Dørum, chief economist at NHO, told newspaper Dagsavisen.
***At least a dozen Corona experts became infected themselves after a night out on the town last weekend. Colleagues working in the microbiology department of the Oslo University Hospital (OUS) are now suffering the consequences of going out for a Friday beer in a crowded Oslo bar on October 22. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Saturday that those infected last weekend include Norwegian experts who analyze, can confirm cases of Corona infection and conduct research on viruses, bacteria and parasites. During the pandemic, they’ve analyzed thousands of Corona tests in the university’s pandemic laboratory, where efforts are made to understand and contain the Corona virus. Several working there now regret heading out to a bar together during their time off on Friday evening October 22. The bar was not identified but it’s been traced as the source of “sars-cov-2 infection” for 12 members of the group who’ve since tested positive, confirmed the leader of their department, Fredrik Müller, to Aftenposten. He claims they all followed current anti-infection recommendations issued by state public health institute FHI, “both at the bar and afterwards.” The department has units at both Ullevål University Hospital and the National Hospital (Rikshospitalet) i Oslo. Lab management doesn’t think infection was brought into the lab, according to Müller: “We have followed infection prevention routines at OUS and have no reason to believe that infection spread further in the department. Our operations are unaffected.”
***Corona infection levels continued to rise over the weekend, with fully 6,507 new cases reported nationwide in the seven days ending on Sunday. Oslo officials reported a 66 percent increase in confirmed Corona cases last week, compared to the week before. Robert Steen, the city government leader i charge of health care issues, told newspaper Aftenposten that most of the cases involve people who have not accepted the city’s offer of free vaccinations or are children under age 12 who are not yet being vaccinated. Most of the youngsters don’t become seriously ill, but adults can. The city continues to urge vaccinations and is preparing to offer a third booster shot, but Steen said there are no plans to reimpose more Corona restrictions because more than 86 percent of all Norwegain adults are now fully vaccinated.
***A new Delta variant of the Corona virus has been discovered in Tromsø, the Northern Norwegian city that’s suddenly registering the highest numbers of new Corona cases in the country. Local officials are urging residents to limit their social contact. Norway has been emerging from the Corona crisis and the government decided against reimposing any national measures on Thursday. At the same time, however, several regions around the country are seeing new spikes in Covid-19 infection. Infection is highest in the northern county of Troms og Finnmark, Oslo and Viken, the large county that surrounds Oslo.
The situation in Tromsø took a turn for the worse when local officials discovered that a new variant known as AY.4.3 is circulating in the city, right when it was hosting an international meeting of the Barents Council. It was attended on Monday and Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov among other foreign guests. “We’ve registered this virus variant, but we know very little about what it will mean for the spread of infection in Tromsø,” Dr Trond Brattland, the local chief medical officer, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He said it had little impact on how the city is handling the current outbreak, which includes asking local residents to limit social contact, use home offices more often, stay at a distance from others and stay home if they’re feeling ill. He also urged everyone to get vaccinated if they aren’t already.
***Home offices are still popular among both workers and employers in Norway, even after the government stopped recommending their use. Now, reports state broadcaster NRK, most large companies including Telenor, Equinor, DNB and media firm Schibsted are using “hybrid offices” that combine a few days in the main office with a few at home. A survey conducted by Telenor found that workers want to continue to be able to work two days a week from home or another location, often a hytte (holiday home). A national survey conducted by Oslo Metropolitan University showed the same trend. The biggest concern, however, was that the distinction between home life and office life can be blurred: Many employees found that they’re spending more time on the job from home than when office time was regulated by clearer start- and stop times.
***National Corona containment measures may need to be reimposed, Norway’s new health minister, Ingvild Kjerkol, warned in a press release on Wednesday. She backed down on Thursday, but infection is now rising in several regions around the country and Kjerkol reminded Norwegians once again that the pandemic is not over. “If there’s a large increase in infection spreading locally or nationally that puts a burden on the health care system, local governments must be prepared to limit the spread through local measures,” Kjerkol stated, adding that it also may be necessary to have another round of national measures, such as mandatory use of face masks on public transport. State health authorities have earlier stated that should not be necessary (see below), because so many Norwegians are fully vaccinated (86.8 percent). Infection has spread the most in Northern Norway, she noted, “and now we see that infection numbers are rising several places.” Another 1,144 new confirmed cases of Corona were registered in Norway in the 24-hour period from midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, almost double the number on Tuesday last week. Tromsø continues to experience relatively high infection rates, with 16 people now admitted to the reopened Corona ward at the University Hospital in Northern Norway (UNN).
***Lots of Norwegians are suddenly coughing again, and health authorities warn that it may not just be seasonal bugs. They’re urging everyone with any sign of respiratory infection or illness to take a Corona test and stay home. It’s difficult, they argue, to differentiate between a normal cold or other respiratory ailments that could be Covid-19, even among those who’ve been vaccinated. Health care officials are also urging everyone to get flu shots, especially those over age 65. Since there was little exposure to flu last winter because of all the Corona containment measures, they note, it can hit harder this year.
***An ongoing rise in infection levels has spread to Trondheim, where around 250 new cases have been confirmed within the past week. The city’s chief medical officer is asking residents to keep following infection prevention measures. There’s also been a steady rise in new Covid-19 infection among people in Trondheim who have been fully vaccinated. Few are seriously ill, but Dr Tove Røsstad said infection prevention measures must be taken seriously. “We have seen a marked increase in (Covid-19) cases the past week,” she wrote in a press release. Ten people have had to be hospitalized and local authorities are considering reimposing some Corona containment measures, such as face mask requirements in public once again.
There were also 1,115 new cases confirmed in Oslo during the past week, with the 285 registered from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday fully 166 more than during the same 24-hour period last week. Tromsø in Northern Norway continues to have the highest number of hosptalizations. Reinstatement of local Corona restrictions is under consideration.
***Travel restrictions to the US will change as of November 8, reports the US Embassy in Oslo. Vaccinated US citizens must still provide a negative Covid-19 test taken within three calendar days of traveling, however, or documentation of recovery in the past 90 days. “All travelers to the US by air must attest to both their vaccination and testing situation,” the embassy wrote. It suggests visiting the US Embassy Oslo’s Covid-19 information page (external link to the embassy’s website) for more information on current entry and exit requirements and quarantine regulations in the US. The US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, continue to issue an advisory against travel to Norway, claiming a “very high level of Covid-19 in the country.” There also continue to be restrictions in place affecting US citizen entry into Norway.
***The number of Norwegians testing positive for the Corona virus passed the 200,000 mark during the weekend. The numbers also keep rising, after recent weeks of decline, but health authorities insist Norway is not on its way into a fifth wave of infection. Nor are there plans for any general shutdowns again. “With 90 percent of all adults vaccinated, we’re beyond the time for strict national (Corona containment) measures,” Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told newspaper Aftenposten. “There’s little point in fully vaccinated people who are well-protected living any differently, even though infection is rising among those not vaccinated.” There have been cases of fully vaccinated Norwegians getting infected, but nearly all have underlying medical conditions with reduced immune systems and are thus more prone to infection, or are elderly and in line for a third booster shot. It’s up to local municipalities, however, to decide what’s best in their areas and they have the power to impose their own restrictions. Most of the new Corona cases continue to be found in Northern Norway (see below). Many involve those who have refused vaccination.
***Border controls may be reinstated in Northern Norway if Corona infection levels continue to rise in the region. Outbreaks in the Tromsø area began last week and local authorities fear seasonal workers from abroad who aren’t vaccinated will add to the problem. Infection levels are back up in the red danger zone in the Troms og Finnmark and Nordland counties in Northern Norway and in Viken, which surrounds Oslo. Virus testing became voluntary when border crossings to Sweden and Finland reopened. Local officials are concerned that hardly anyone stops for testing, including seasonal workers arriving from the Baltic countries, where infection levels are also high.
“The only way to make sure people are arriving Corona-free is to place police back at the border crossings again,” Willy Ørnebakk, local administrator of Storfjord in Troms, where there’s a border crossing from Finland, told state broadcaster NRK on Friday. Line Vold of public health institute FHI confirmed that the number of Corona cases is rising in Northern Norway, with the university hospital in Tromsø (UNN) now caring for more Corona patients than at any other time during the pandemic.
***Norway’s new government plans to extend Corona relief measures at the workplace through the end of the year. The earlier Conservatives-led government had planned to end them from October 1. They pointed to how the economy is rebounding and some businesses are actually having trouble finding enough workers. That’s because many Norwegians can continue to collect benefits as they wait and hope to return to the jobs from which they were laid off. New Labour Minister Hadia Tajik of the Labour Party however, maintains that “the crisis measures will continue as long as the crisis continues.” Tajik proposes extending jobless benefits including sick pay through the end of the year. She also wants employers to continue to be exempted from salary obligations through December 31. The proposals need a majority in Parliament, which is likely. Even though the new government lacks a majority, there’s still a majority on the left-center side of Norwegian politics.
***Northern Norway’s biggest hospital, the university hospital UNN in Tromsø, was back on “yellow alert” Monday, after an ongoing increase in its number of new Corona-related admissions. The rise in infection began earlier last week. It means that UNN was preparing for more cases and what they called “a higher level of pandemic operations.” Hospital officials are reopening their specially equipped Corona ward and considering whether to boost staffing. A total of 15 patients were admitted as of Sunday evening, 14 in Tromsø and one at the hospital in Narvik that’s attached to UNN. It was the highest level of admissions since the pandemic began last year.
***Norwegian airports joined local airlines in dropping requirements for use of face masks. As of Monday (Oct 18), face masks will no longer be mandatory at the airport, on either domestic routes within Norway or on flights within Scandinavia. “We think the time (to drop face masks) is right now, based on the infection situation in the country,” John Eckhoff, communications chief for SAS in Norway, told TV2. Other airlines based in Norway, including Norwegian Air, Widerøe and Flyr, quickly followed suit. They all agreed it was “natural” to follow Norway’s own Corona containment measures, which have been greatly relaxed in recent weeks. Face masks are no longer mandatory, for example, on public transportation, in restaurants or most other public gathering places. “We look forward to be able to greet passengers once again with a big smile,” Silje Brandvoll of Widerøe told state broadcaster NRK. The airlines may also be able to welcome back passengers who stopped flying because they didn’t want to have to wear a face mask for hours on end.
Avinor, the state agency that runs Norway’s airports, followed up by noting in its updated Corona information heading into the weekend that “there are no national demands for use of face masks at the airports.” Avinor warned, however that other international airlines serving Norway still require face masks on board (sometimes medically approved face masks instead of those made of cloth) as do many airports abroad. Passengers were advised to confirm latest Corona requirements with whatever airline they’re using.
***A Corona-related baby boom in Norway is another indication of how Norwegians often behave differently from people in other countries. A sharp rise in births this year contrasts with declines elsewhere, and confirms how Norwegians were confident their leaders would get them through the Corona crisis. Birth rates often fall during crises, and they did in both the US and many European countries. In Norway, however, a decade of annual declines in births suddenly reversed during the Corona crisis: The country marked its first increase during the first quarter of 2021 (nine months after Norway’s shutdown began on March 12, 2020). Around 600 more babies were also born during the second quarter of this year than during the second quarter of last year, reports state statistics bureau SSB.
“This was an unexpected consequence of the Corona crisis that we haven’t seen in other countries,” Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of public health institute FHI, told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “On the contrary, births have fallen in many, perhaps because uncertainty about the future has been so high. People wondered whether they’d survive, or keep their jobs.” In Norway, however, lots of baby-making clearly began during the shutdown of 2020. “That indicates a formidable degree of confidence that things would go well in Norway,” Stoltenberg said. FHI has recently released a major report on how Norway fared during the Corona crisis (see below) that also shows how there were fewer heart attacks along with a decline in most other infectious disease.
***A new study of the Corona crisis in Norway confirms that the country’s immigrant population was hardest hit by the pandemic. The study by public health institute FHI notes that Norwegian residents born abroad accounted for 40 percent of all hospitalizations between March 2020 and February 2021. FHI reported this week that infection levels were high in areas that are home to many immigrants. They tended to view travel abroad as more necessary than the general population, often to help care for ill family members or to attend funerals, and many traveled to countries with high infection levels. FHI noted that many immigrants also live in Oslo and the surrounding county of Viken, where infection rates in general were the highest in the country. The virus was also initially imported to Norge largely by middle-aged Norwegian men who’d been on skiing holidays in the Alps. It spread quickly and eventually to the immigrant community. FHI reported that fully 61 percent of all Covid-19 infection in Norway was in Oslo and Viken.
***Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of Norway’s public health institute FHI, has been front and center during the entire Corona crisis. Now, as the crisis eases, she’s urging all countries and governments to be much better prepared for the next pandemic. Norway rode out the crisis better than most, FHI reported on Monday, with far fewer deaths and just 6 percent of the adult population falling ill, a bit leess than in a normal flu season. Stoltenberg thinks it’s most important, however, to recognize the danger of a pandemic earlier, and act quickly at an earlier point in time than under the Corona pandemic. It’s believed to have posed a threat in China in late 2019, but it wasn’t until March 2020 that Norway and most other governments in Europe started closing borders and shutting down most of society.
“Part of the problem is that when it hasn’t hit wealthy countries, we pay less attention to it, and to how important it is to invest in what needs to be done,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday. She urges good disease surveillance systems, international cooperation and the ability to develop vaccines quickly.
***State medical authorities have received a total of 35,683 reports of suspicious side-effects from Corona vaccines. That’s a tiny portion of the 7.8 million vaccinations in Norway so far, but all reports are being investigated. News bureau NTB reported that 3,129 of the reports have been classified as “serious” after 19,206 cases were studied and 16,077 of them were deemed as not being serious. Children and youth have only recently begun to be vaccinated and they’re being watched the most closely for any sign of adverse effects. Around 300,000 Norwegians aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated so far. Side-effects include some children fainting from the injection itself, but that’s not generally viewed as serious. Other side-effects coming later include flu-like symptoms, fatigue and soreness around the shot, similar to those reported by adults. There’s been concern over a few cases of heart inflammation in young men (see below), which is why they’re no longer being offered the Moderna vaccine.
***Norwegian health authorities now recommend the Pfizer vaccine for men under age 30. The recommendation comes after some young men developed heart inflammation (myokarditt) after taking the Moderna vaccine. “We’re evaluating the situation constantly,” Dr Geir Bukholm of the public health institute FHI told news bureau NTB, “but we think this is still a seldom side-effect of both vaccines. Moderna is a very effective vaccine to prevent infection and serious illness, but the risk of this inflammation in the heart muscle is somewhat higher.” Health authorities in Sweden have now stopped vaccinating men under 30 with the Moderna vaccine, and Denmark is also limiting its use. Norwegian officials aren’t going that far but are offering a clear recommendation: Men under 30 should choose the Pfizer vaccine. All those under age 18 are also advised against being vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine.
***Norway’s reopening has gone well, health authorities could confirm in their weekly report on the status of the Corona pandemic. The numbers of new cases of the virus continue to fall and those needing hospitalization has stabilized at at level that poses no threat to overall hospital capacity. “The reopening has gone well,” Line Vold of FHI told newspaper Dagbladet on Wednesday. “There has neither been an increase in infection nor in the rate of new hospital admissions.” There were a total of 52 new hospitalizations last week, compared to 62 the week before and 77 the week before that. FHI also reported a 39 percent decline in new cases of the Corona virus and its variants.
***Everyone over 65 in Norway will soon be offered a third dose of a Corona vaccine. Booster shots will also be offered to those with weakened immune systems or chronic illness. “The goal with the booster shots is to protect against serious illness,” Health Minister Bent Høie said at a press conference in Oslo Wednesday afternoon. The offer will go first to those aged 85 and up and those living in nursing homes. Then those aged 75 to 84, followed by those 65 and up. The booster shots are being made available on the recommendation of state health authorities. Everyone vaccinated earlier with the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine will also be offered booster shots, since the Janssen vaccine has proven less effective than Pfizer and Moderna.
Approval of booster shots for the elderly comes just after reports this week that a fully-vaccinated elderly resident of Molde had nonetheless become infected by the Corona virus and died. The elderly resident received home health care services and was one of at least six others in Molde to be cared for by a health care worker who was not vaccinated. Three of the patients became so ill that they had to be hospitalized.
Family members are upset, with one daughter telling state broadcaster NRK that “home health care services are supposed to be safe for both those who receive help and their families. This is very frightening.”
Vaccinations are voluntary in Norway, however, with no one forced to get a shot. “We have worked hard to avoid this (an employee infecting a client),” Molde’s chief medical officer told NRK. “The infection came from an employee, and that’s extra unfortunate.” Molde officials have required all care givers who aren’t vaccinated to use extra anti-infection gear. State officials now say that employers can also reassign any such care-givers who work with especially vulnerable patients.
***National employers’ organization NHO wants state officials to clarify whether employers can legally demand that any sick employees test themselves for the Corona virus. As many return to the workplace after 18 months in home offices, it’s unclear who’s responsible for testing and covering the costs of sick pay. The Norwegian government has removed most remaining Corona restrictions but still wants Norwegians to stay home at the first sign of any illness, like a sore throat. Government officials also urged Norwegians to test themselves for Covid-19 as well. Now their bosses are wondering whether they can legally demand or verify that employees have been tested, and they worry that many employees will have to stay home instead of reporting for work. Employers typically have to cover the first few days of sick pay before state compensation takes over. Restaurants and hotels, which have lost many of their workers from before the Corona crisis, are especially concerned. They’re already short-staffed and fear symptoms of a common cold will lead to a spike in sick leave, higher costs or even closure.
***Fourteen cases of a new mutation of the Corona virus have been found in Norway. The mutation may be able to infect people who are immune, prompting state public health institute FHI to follow developments closely. Newspaper Dagbladet reported the new mutation Friday, just a week after the Norwegian government lifted most of its remaining Corona containment measures. All 14 cases of the mutation have been found in the county of Møre og Romsdal, with several in one of its main cities, Molde. Line Vold of FHI stressed, however, that the mutation was first detected in July, with a few small outbreaks tied to it. Several fully vaccinated people are among those who became sick, according to the region’s chief medical officer Dr Cato Innerdal, who said they “became really sick, so that worried us enough that we wanted to study this further.” Dagbladet reported that FHI has alerted the European warning system, EWRS, but Vold claimed initial studies of the mutation are not overly worrisome. “We’re following this along along with many other variants,” she said.
***Despite all the countdowns to last week’s “reopening” of Norway, only 9 percent of Norwegians want to attend cultural events without any social distancing requirements. Theaters and concert halls, however, have been dropping the one-meter rule as quickly as they can. Another new survey, this one by research firm NPU, indicates that most Norwegians remain skeptical to any quick return to normality. The low number of those unconcerned about being packed together with others at concerts, for example, was registered even though fully 92 percent of the 4,216 responding to the survey were fully vaccinated. Its results don’t worry managers of cinemas, theaters and concert halls. “All our experience indicates there will be lots of demand for tickets,” Kristian Seltun of the National Theater in Oslo told newspaper Klassekampen. He added that recent ticket sales have been the best in several years. Several of Norway’s state-run theaters remain closed by an ongoing strike among theater workers. Cinema operators, meanwhile, were expecting large turnouts this weekend, not least because of the long-delayed release of the new James Bond film, some of which was shot on location in Norway.
***US citizens were being advised this week against traveling to Norway, after it was defined by US officials as a “high risk” country regarding Corona infection levels. Newspaper VG reported that the US’ Centers for Disease Control had reclassified Norway as being at “Level 4,” its highest infection level, adding that “if you must travel to Norway, be sure you are fully vaccinated.” The advisory came just after Norway’s relatively strict government officials finally determined that infection rates were low enough to scrap most remaining Corona containment measures. Norwegian officials have also been praised for keeping Norway’s deaths from Corona (861) much lower than that of other countries, not least the US.
***A clear majority still favours social distancing in Norway, even after national restrictions were removed. A new survey shows 60 percent are keen to limit hand-shaking, while even more (roughly 77 percent) don’t want to get too close to others in public places. The survey, conducted by research firm Norstat for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), seems to defy the public displays of togetherness on Saturday evening, when thousands of people all over the country gathered to celebrate (see below) in bars, restaurants, at sporting events and on the streets. National restrictions were lifted as of 4pm, and lots of signs promoting social distancing and face masks were quickly pulled down and even ripped up.
The survey results confirm that far from all want to return to normal everyday life. “I think that’s completly natural,” Health Minister Bent Høie told NRK. “We just moved away from the one-meter rule but the habit can remain.” Most people have now dropped face masks, however, with 28 percent saying they won’t use them at all any more and 40 percent responding that they will only use face masks to a small degree. Women tended to be more restrictive than men in the survey, even as infection levels continue to decline.
***The Norwegian government’s decision to reopen Norway by dropping most remaining Corona containment measures may send infection levels back up again. Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate expects more young people will get sick. “The reopening will most certainly lead to some more Corona cases,” Nakstad told news bureau NTB, “but it’s not certain we’ll see it clearly in the statistics because most are vaccinated and because self-testing isn’t registered much.” More than 90 percent of Norway’s adult population is now vaccinated, which is the main reason Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her government opted to remove most of the remaining national restrictions from 4pm on Saturday. That set off excessive partying all over the country (see below). State health officials are most worried about a rise in Corona infection this autumn among those who have not been vaccinated for various reasons. Nakstad and his colleagues are also worried about flu season this year.
***There literally was dancing in the streets around Norway when national Corona restrictions were finally lifted during the weekend, 18 months after the Corona crisis began. Police had a busy night on Saturday, however, after celebrations degenerated into street brawls among drunken Norwegians. Culture Minister Abid Raja was among those out celebrating with his wife at Kulturhuset in Oslo Saturday night. “This is just fantastic,” Raja told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Norway has waited for this for 18 months. We’re ready to dance and get both cultural events and everyday life back. I encourage everyone to head back to the theaters, cinemas and to concerts.”
Too many arguably headed back to bars, late-night partying and violence. Police in Oslo alone registered around 50 street fights and other instances of disturbing the peace late Saturday night. Thousands lined up outside bars and nightclubs from Oslo in the south to Tromsø in the north. Police and the bars themselves were prepared for chaos and exaggerated partying. “There were lots of people out on the town from Saturday afternoon and through the night,” Rune Hekkelstrand of the Oslo Police District told NRK. Police had to deal with 190 calls for help in Oslo alone, there were street brawls in Tønsberg, at least a dozen arrests in Agder and scores of calls for police help in Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger and other towns including Harstad. “It was like New Year’s Eve or the night before the 17th of May (Constitution Day),” Tatjana Knappen of the Vest Police district in Bergen told NRK.
***Norwegian health authorities recommended further easing of remaining Corona-related restrictions and a general reopening of the country from October 1st. That happened a week earlier, over the weekend, specifically from Saturday afternoon at 4pm. The government not only accepted the health authorities’ recommendation for a return to “normal everyday life” with increased preparedness in case infection levels rise. Prime Minister Erna Solberg accelerated the reopening by nearly a week. Health Minister Bent Høie, meanwhile, had already asked municipalities all over Norway to be prepared for an imminent return to normality as the Corona crisis winds down. State health authorities had also confirmed that statistics were going in the right direction. Infection levels and hospitalizations continue to decline, the fourth wave of the pandemic in Norway is subsiding and more than 80 percent of the adult population is now fully vaccinated. “It’s looking very positive,” Line Vold of the public health institute FHI told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. “We’re in a good phase.”
***In another sign of Norway’s reopening after the Corona crisis, the government has approved use of vaccination certificates from four more countries: Albania, the Færoe Islands, Morocco and Panama, all of which have been linked to the EU certificate system. That means Norway will accept such certificates as well. It also means residents of the four countries who are fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine and have a valid certificate can travel to Norway and avoid quarantine. Certificates from Andorra, Israel and Monaco have also been approved by the EU and will be accepted by Norway as soon as they’re linked to the EU’s system.
***Despite presenting a united front to the public, Norwegian health authorities have come in conflict with one another during the Corona crisis. A new book by Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the public health institute FHI, has revealed major disagreements over how infection could spread among children. Stoltenberg writes that the disagreements forced a meeting to clear the air between the health professionals at FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) and Dr Espen Nakstad, the assistant state health director who became a public hero for his clear explanations and handling of Corona issues. Nakstad believes children can play a bigger role in the spread of infection, however, than FHI officials did.
FHI’s health experts were at first relieved that Nakstad took on such a high-profile role in addressing concerns about the pandemic. They later questioned that role, however, and his position in formulating and promoting Corona containment measures. It was always the government that made final decisions, but they had to be based on agreed recommendations of health experts. Instead there were some “hefty arguments” between Nakstad and Dr Are Stuvitz Berg of FHI, reports state broadcaster NRK. The various health officials involved ended up having “a better understanding” of each other’s positions and Stoltenberg insists she’s on good terms with Nakstad. Norway has, in the end, been among the most successful in dealing with the Corona crisis, with a relatively low death rate and high vaccination rate.
***The US will finally allow non-citizens to enter the country from early November if they’re fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s good news for airlines like SAS, which has long had a daily flight from Oslo to Newark and is keen to fill more seats. There have been exceptions for Norwegian diplomats, journalists and those with close family in the US. Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide are among Norwegians in New York this week, for example, to take part in the annual opening of the United Nations. Most everyone else has been unwelcome, just like Norway has kept out travelers from outside the European area. Norwegians and many others will now finally be allowed entry to the US without quarantine requirements but with proof of a negative Corona test taken within three days of traveling. Norway will likely be expected to follow suit, and allow Americans entry to Norway from November as well, if not before.
***Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie now seems more worried about the coming flu season than he is about the Corona virus. He asked municipalities to start offering flu shots, especially for those at high risk, from early October. Høie confirmed that Corona infection numbers continue to decline, while the numbers of those vaccinated now account for 90 percent of the population. “That means we’re nearing normal everyday life again with high preparedness,” he said, adding, however, that the government has still not set any date for a full reopening of the country.
Norway’s one-meter social distancing rule, limits on the size of public gatherings and restrictions on travel into Norway will be lifted when a reopening occurs. Until then they’ll remain in place, and even after they’re lifted, Norwegians will still be ordered into isolation if they test positive for Covid-19. Testing and quarantine rules will also remain in place when travelers from abroad enter the country. Høie repeated warnings, meanwhile, that this year’s flu season will be tougher. He urged everyone to consider flu shots, especially all those over age 65 and in high-risk groups.
***Infection levels continue to fall in Norway, with the 311 new cases reported on Thursday in Oslo, for example, down by more than half from the same day last week. The average number of cases emerging daily over the past two weeks has also fallen, according to state health officials. The daily average in Oslo, which still reports the most cases, was 406, down from 680 on August 30. Infection is highest in the eastern district of Grorud, which has registered 1,187 cases per 100,000 residents in the last two weeks.
***Norway now appears to have come through its fourth wave of Corona infection, with the numbers of new confirmed cases declining rapidly every day. “This is now looking really good,” Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, director of the public health institute FHI, told news bureau NTB on Monday (Sept 13). The wave is now believed to have crested on September 6, when health authorities registered an all-time daily high of 1,780 new cases of the Corona virus. Most all of those infected were young, as the delta strain of the virus continued to spread through recently reopened schools. On Sunday (Sept 12), “only” 653 new cases were registered, 412 fewer than those registered on the same day a week earlier. There’s been a daily average of 1,268 new cases registered over the past week, down from 1,460 the week before. New cases have fallen even day now since late last week.
“We expect this decline to continue,” said Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI. He thinks the mass testing now going on, especially in the schools, is the most important reason for the decline. Vaccination programs are also continuing, now among teenagers, leading to declines in the spread of infection. Hospitalization numbers have risen, but Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate thinks they will stabilize within the next week.
***Around 200,000 Norwegians will be offered a third dose of Corona vaccine, the state public health institute FHI confirmed last week. Patients who’ve had organ- or bone marrow transplants will be among the first to get a booster shot. Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that he didn’t think any local municipalities have started offering a third vaccination to those deemed most in need of extra protection against the Corona virus. He thinks local health care officials need more help from fastleger (primary care physicians) to determine which patients are most vulnerable. Norway has enough vaccine to offer third shots, despite having already fully vaccinated more than 60 percent of the adult population. Others set to be offered the booster shots also include those with immunity deficiencies, cancer patients undergoing treatment that can weaken their immune systems, those needing dialysis and those with advanced or untreated HIV infection.
Health officials in Bergen, meanwhile, are suddenly facing some new resistance from young people who don’t want to take the Moderna vaccine for fear it has stronger side-effects than the Pfizer vaccine. “The resistance is irrational,” Dr Kjell Haug, deputy chief medical officer in Bergen, told state broadcaster NRK. Norway otherwise has had extremely high vaccine acceptance rates, which is likely to allow removal of the last Corona-related restrictions later this fall.
***Norway is showing up as much more “red” on the EU’s map of countries within the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS). That reflects the recent sharp rise in infection nationwide, even as the numbers of new cases are starting to decline again. The greater Oslo metropolitan area, Viken County and much of the southern and western coasts of Norway are all red now. That indicates a cumulative 14-day Covid-19 case notification rate of between 200 and 500. The rest of Norway is shown as orange, also indicating a fairly high rate of infection. Trøndelag officials said they understood the dubious distinction, “because we’ve had a major outbreak here,” Dr Tove Røsstad, chief medical officer in Trondheim, told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. The delta strain of the Covid virus continues to spread in Norway but at a slightly lower rate this week.
***Norway hasn’t had many anti-vaccine demonstrations, but one suddenly played out at a high school in Bærum, just west of Oslo, on Monday. A lone member of the radical right-wing party Alliansen showed up in the schoolyard and started offering students NOK 500 (USD 58) each if they’d refuse to be vaccinated. Hans Jørgen Lysglimt Johansen, leader of the small party, turned up at the Valler high school in Bærum wearing an orange jacket and carrying a sign reading “Stop the death vaccine.” He appeared at the school unannounced just as it was holding a political debate ahead of Monday’s parliamentary election. Leaders of other parties eligible for representation in Parliament had been invited to the event but not Alliansen, which is too small to qualify for any seats in Norway’s national assembly. State broadcaster NRK noted that it only won 0.1 percent of the vote in Bærum in the last election.
After Johansen refused a request from the school’s principal Berit Hetland to leave the school grounds, she called the police. Hetland called Johansen’s overt practice of trying to buy support from students “unacceptable.” He left before police arrived but the school filed a complaint anyway. Students, meanwhile, reported that Johansen had waved 500-kroner notes, only to see a few accepted by students who already were fully vaccinated. “It was all really stupid, unprofessional and idotic,” one student told NRK. Another said that Johansen also tried to dole out caps reading “USA” and “Make America great again,” one of which was later burned. Norway continues to have one of the highest vaccine acceptance rates in the world and the lowest number of deaths tied to the Corona virus. Around 90 percent of all adults have been vaccinated with at least their first shot.
***Corona infection continued to rise over the weekend, but at a slightly lower rate than the week before. Hopes were rising that Norway’s fourth wave of infection may be finally cresting. Health authorities reported 365 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus on Sunday in Oslo, for example, where mass testing continues. The average over the past two weeks has been 374 new cases every day. Most of those testing positive continue to be Norwegians under the age of 18 who haven’t been vaccinated yet. A professor at the University of Oslo, Nils Christian Stenseth, told news bureau NTB early Monday that he thinks school vacation periods may steer the course of the virus within a few years. “It can first and foremost infect children, with infection rising and falling when schools and day care centers are open,” Stenseth told NTB. Norway has just started offering vaccine to children, but only from age 12 and up.
***The Norwegian government is dropping the fourth step of its national reopening program as the pandemic continues. At the same time, it’s easing entry requirements for close family members and partners from outside the EU. Remaining Corona-related restrictions will otherwise be eased when health authorities think it’s safe to do so, and in the meantime, children aged 12 to 15 will be offered vaccine. Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced the changes at yet another press conference on Thursday (Sept 2), after more than a week of steadily rising infection rates since schools reopened with few restrictions in mid-August. Health authorities have admitted that they miscalculated the risk of how quickly Corona virus infection would spread among children and teens.
“Further reopening risks more infection,” Solberg said. “We don’t want to take that risk when we’re so close to the time when all adults will have received an offer to be fully vaccinated.” Both she and the head of the state public health institute, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, stressed that the majority of those now hospitalized with Corona had not been vaccinated.
When enough are vaccinated, Norway will then revert (possibly by the end of September) to what Solberg called a “normal” situation but with heightened preparedness. Norwegians will be expected to remember hand hygiene, to stay home at the sign of any illness and to get tested if in doubt, but otherwise can return to socializing without limits on guests at home. As many as 5,000 people will be allowed to gather for indoor events (up from 3,000) and 10,000 at outdoor events (up from 7,000) from midnight Friday.
In another long-awaited development, family members and partners from countries outside Europe will be able to travel to Norway from September 12. They’ll still be subject to testing and even hotel quarantine at the border, but children, parents, grandparents and partners of Norwegians will be allowed entry. Partners will still need to apply for entry through immigration agency UDI. (external link to UDI’s website).
Vaccine will also be made available to children aged 12 to 15 with parental consent. Only one dose will be recommended. Schools, meanwhile, can decide for themselves whether to tighten restrictions and move back down to the “yellow” level that limits assembly but also could remove the need for quarantine. “We think it’s correct that local outbreaks (of infection) be met with local measures,” Solberg said.
***Despite a sharp rise in Corona infection, the head of Oslo’s city government has no plans for another shutdown. Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party said on national radio Wednesday that relatively few are being hit hard by the infection wave and noted how most all Norwegian adults are now vaccinated. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful and follow the recommendations and regulations we still have,” Johansen quickly added when questioned on NRK Wednesday morning. He said he could understand how teachers and parents are uneasy about the surge of infection among youngsters after schools reopened in mid-August (see below), but stressed that hospitalizations also remain relatively low despite nearly a 50 percent increase this week.
Johansen said he was awaiting new recommendations from state health authorities, who admitted on Wednesday that they had underestimated the surge of infection after school started. Nearly 700 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus were registered in Oslo as of Wednesday morning. Assistant state health director Dr Espen Nakstad also admitted that “we don’t have very good control” over the spread of infection. “At the same time, many more are being vaccinated and that will help a lot.” Oslo and many other cities and towns around Norway are well underway with vaccinating 16-17 year olds.
Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of public health institute FHI, also admitted that the authorities’ infection strategy “has not functioned well enough” after the summer holidays. “We haven’t wanted infection to spread so much in the schools, and it has gone faster than we expected,” she told NRK Wednesday morning as more record numbers of confirmed cases rolled in.
***Norway posted the highest infection levels of in the Nordic region this week, as the fourth Corona wave crashes over the country. Infection levels rose 147 percent last week, over the week before, and they keep climbing. A total of 2,293 new cases were reported last week, up from 928 the week before. City officials noted, however, that few of those testing positive are falling seriously ill or requiring hospitalization.
***Health Minister Bent Høie announced that fully vaccinated Norwegians with weak immune systems will soon be offered a third dose. He said the government had recognized that they run a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 and have lower effect of vaccine. Norway estimates around 200,000 people will be offered a booster shot, including those who’ve undergone organ transplants and cancer patients who’ve recently undergone cancer treatments.
***Government officials have extended Norway’s global travel rules until October 1, warning against all travel outside Europe unless it’s absolutely necessary. That also means travelers arriving from outside the EU/EEA area, Switzerland and Great Britain are still subject to mandatory hotel quarantine at their own expense. The restrictions continue to disrupt family reunions, business and, most recently, university research and doctoral programs. Four of Norway’s largest universities complain that the government’s refusal to allow students working on their doctorate degrees into the country is both illogical and impedes research. Some companies and organizations have controversially won exceptions to the tough rules. Commentators have been criticizing how the government allowed theatrical workers tied to a production of the musical Mamma Mia! into Norway, but not, for example, the 25-year-old Iranian PhD candidate Paiman Shafabakhsh. He should have begun his research at the University of Oslo in February but continues to be denied entry. Foreign students in bachelor- and master degree programs are allowed into Norway but not doctoral students.
“I can’t understand how they can be a problem,” Svein Stølen, dean of the University of Oslo, told newspaper Khrono. “This is not a large group of students and they are often here for a long time without traveling home.” He worries that the government only values instruction and not research. Foreign students currently make up 60 percent of those pursuing PhDs within mathematics, science, agriculture and veterinary medicine, with so-called “internationalization” an important part of university policy in recent years. Henrik Asheim, the government minister in charge of research and higher education, said changes or exceptions in travel and entry restrictions are under constant evaluation. “I hope the situation internationally can soon allow us to open up a bit more.”
***Huge increases in Corona infection in Trondheim and Oslo have forced the closure of some schools, sent hundreds into quarantine and prompted authorities to plead with college-age students to limit their socializing. Trondheim reported 359 new cases on Monday alone, most of it tied to students partying. As few as five new cases had been reported per day before schools reopened last month. By Sunday the daily average had hit 136 and on Monday all records were broken. Officials are responding with mass testing and appeals for a halt to student parties for the next two to three weeks.
***As Corona infection set another record heading into the weekend, Norwegian health authorities claim they’re not overly concerned that around a half-million Norwegians still haven’t received even their first vaccination. They firmly believe that number will soon decline, especially as 16- and 17-year-olds start getting their shots. Included among those not vaccinated are adults who have turned down the offer of vaccine. “If they have questions, we have answers, and if there are misunderstandings, we can clarify,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of the state public health institute FHI told state broadcaster NRK on Friday. “But if they don’t want the vaccine, then that’s their decision.” He noted that Norway’s free Corona vaccination program “is an offer,” and not mandatory. He stressed, however, that Norway continues to have among the highest vaccination acceptance rates in the world, along with among the fewest confirmed Corona cases and deaths per capita. “Norway has has an outstanding level of public participation in the vaccination program,” Aavitsland said. Only around 3 percent of those offered the vaccine have turned it down.
***Norway recorded its highest numbers of new confirmed cases of the Corona virus in a single day since the pandemic began. A total of 1,294 new cases were registered Thursday during the preceding 24-hour period that ended at midnight Wednesday, followed by an additional 1,415 on Friday. Health authorities said nearly all the cases involve young Norwegians who have been having lots of social contact again after schools reopened in mid-August with few Corona-related restrictions. Infection rates were up 20 percent last week and now the public health institute confirms Norway is undergoing its fourth wave of infection. Far fewer of those infected, however, need to be hospitalized than when the pandemic began. While hospitalizations are up and the average age of those admitted is declining, most of the youngsters testing positive don’t get as sick as those testing positive during the early phase of the pandemic last year.
Authorities are still bracing for another increase in hospitalizations, though, since they say it often takes two to three weeks before an infected person becomes so sick that he or she needs hospital care. “Right now there are quite a few people in their 30s who are hospitalized,” Dr Espen Nakstad, assistant state health director, told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. “Eventually many 20- and 30-year-olds will be fully vaccinated, but we’re vulnerable in the meantime.”
***Despite a new surge in Corona infection, fully 71 percent of Norwegians now want to move forward with a full reopening of the country in September. A professor emeritus of epidemiology thinks otherwise, calling on the government to step on the brakes instead. Dag Steinar Thelle of the University of Oslo told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it’s “sensible” to have a reopening plan, “but what’s difficult to understand is that (the government) is setting a date in advance. The plan should follow developments in the spread of the epidemic.” His comments came after more than a thousand new cases of the virus were confirmed on Wednesday, and hospitalizations nearly doubled since the weekend.
Health Minister Bent Høie insisted that data, not dates, decide in the end, stressing that the government has already delayed its reopening plans by several weeks. Høie himself said earlier this month that the government is aiming for a reopening in September, but now says no final decision has been made. Only 23 percent of Norwegians oppose a reopening in September, according to a survey conducted by research bureau Norstat for NRK. The remainder were unsure.
***Corona infection levels are soaring again in Norway, hitting their highest point since March. Record levels were reported in the northwest city of Ålesund, Bergen remains under tighter restrictions and long lines are forming once again at testing stations in many cities. There’s been an urgent call for more testing after more than 4,000 new cases were reported in Norway during the past week. Most of those now infected are young, with 30 school students from Oslo testing positive after having been on a class camping trip to the mountain Gaustatoppen.
Public health institute FHI reported that Corona infection was also found on board 131 flights into Norway during the past two weeks. Much of the new spike in Corona cases nationwide is linked to those returning from summer holidays, especially those abroad. FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) reported that passengers arriving in Oslo on 40 domestic flights tested positive while 85 flights with infected passengers were from abroad. There have also been a few cases of passengers testing positive after traveling on ferries returning from Germany and Denmark.
Hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the past two days but health authorities aren’t worried about capacity being strained. They continue to point to the high numbers of Norwegians already vaccinated and thus protected from becoming seriously ill.
***Norway’s public health institute FHI is intensifying efforts to fully vaccinate everyone over age 18. It’s worried that those with only their first vaccine dose can become “super spreaders” of the Corona virus without realizing it. FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) confirms that the first vaccine dose prevents against serious illness from the virus but those with just one shot can become infected by Corona with few or no symptoms. That means they can unwittingly become super-spreaders, because they live normally and don’t test themselves but can still be contagious. “And that’s one of the reasons that we now want to intensify our work with getting everyone vaccinated with two doses,” Dr Geir Bukholm, assistant director of FHI, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday. He noted that Norway can better tolerate higher infection levels now than earlier, but he’s concerned more and more young people who aren’t vaccinated can get sick. Around a million vaccinations are due to be carried out this week alone, in order to fully vaccinate as many as possible.
***Norway’s Princess Ingrid Alexandra, heir to the throne after her father and grandfather, has tested positive for the Corona virus. She’s the first member of the Royal Family to become infected with the virus and has been placed in isolation at the Crown Prince family’s official residence, Skaugum in Asker, west of Oslo. (See the full story here.)
***Norway cracked down on entry requirements again on Friday, after new statistics from the EU show much higher levels of Corona virus infection all over Europe. Travelers arriving from Sweden and Germany, for example, will now be subject to quarantine if they can’t document being fully vaccinated. The stricter rules stem from how several more countries and regions within countries are now categorized as either “red” or “orange,” signifying high levels of infection. The UK remains dark red, as is Spain, while Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, France and most of Denmark are now red as well. Neighbouring Sweden had been green but is now back to both red and orange (see below), as is Norway itself in several regions. Germany’s return to orange also sparked renewed quarantine restrictions.
There’s also been a spike in the numbers of people, especially teenagers and those in their 20s, testing positive at border crossings from Sweden. Several didn’t even feel ill, yet tested positive. Increased testing is also leading to long queues of motorists waiting to cross the border to Norway. In Bergen, meanwhile, a new spike in infection prompted city government leaders to extend tougher restrictions for at least another week. Bergen called on neighbouring municipalities to help in efforts to stem the spread of the virus, now mostly the Delta strain.
***Even though Norway has the strictest Corona rules in Europe, the country is no longer “green,” signifying low infection levels on the EU’s map. The western county of Vestland is now showing “red,” while the rest of the country is orange. That can cause problems for people traveling abroad from Norway, since those arriving from orange or red zones can be subject to quarantine on arrival if they can’t document that they’re fully vaccinated. EU health authorities now categorize Norway as having high levels of infection per every 100,000 residents. All of southern neighbouring Sweden is now categorized as red, as are parts of the north, with the rest of the country orange. The infection trend is rising, as it is in Norway where 612 new cases of the Corona virus were registered in the past 24 hours leading into early Thursday (August 19).
***The Norwegian government confirmed that it will soon offer Corona vaccine to 16- and 17-year-olds. The health ministry stated that those under age 18 are at low risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19, but it had decided to follow the public health institute FHI’s recommendation. The decision also follows a trend this summer of infection spreading among youth. If that trend continues as the new school year begins, the risk of illness can rise, concluded the ministry.
“The vaccine will protect individuals, let youth have more normal days and contribute to immunity among the entire population,” Health Minister Bent Høie stated in a press release on Wednesday (August 18). Vaccinating youth can also contribute towards lowering infection pressure on society as a whole and preventing the spread of the virus among children, Høie said. Vaccine will be offered to the 16- and 17-year-olds after everyone aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated. Some teenagers can be vaccinated earlier if, for example, they plan to attend school abroad or have a higher risk of being infected. Two vaccines are now approved for those aged 12-17: BioNTech/Pfizer’s Comirnaty and Moderna’s Spikevax. FHI is recommending use of Comirnaty in Norway.
***Schools opened all over Norway this week, raising concern that Corona virus infection may spread among children and youth. Some parents are upset that they can’t decide for themselves whether their children can be vaccinated. State health authorities have no vaccination program yet for those under age 16. “If the health authorities claim the virus isn’t dangerous for children, and know that they’ll probably be infected regardless, maybe some (parents) will want their children to be infected as soon as possible,” one Oslo-area father, Trym Nordhus, told newspaper Aftenposten as school started Monday. He believes state authorities think most children will either be infected with Covid-19 by others or eventually through a vaccine. Dr Pål Surén, a pediatrician and researcher for the public health institute FHI, said he understands many parents are worried about how schools are opening at the “green” level with few if any Corona-related restrictions. “Many are uneasy that their children are going back to school or day care while infection is still spreading,” he told Aftenposten. “We don’t think infection will spread (among children) very quickly.” He argues that children will also be urged to wash their hands often, that hugging or other close contact will be discouraged and children falling ill will need to stay home. FHI is still deliberating whether to offer vaccine to children, with Surén noting that officials are still waiting for more data about how safe the vaccine is for children down to age 12.
***Norwegian health authorities have once again postponed the fourth-step in Norway’s reopening plan because of rising infection levels. They’re now also planning to start vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds in an effort to limit the spread of infection when school starts. Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate expressed concerns in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday about plans to fully reopen schools at the “green” level with few Corona restrictions. He warns that some schools in Oslo and elsewhere may soon have to go back to yellow and even red levels that would reimpose restrictions. The Conservatives- led government, up for re-election in September, still hopes to remove the last of national restrictions by late September (see below). That’s because most all of Norway’s adult population will be fully vaccinated by then, or at least been offered vaccine. In the meantime, restrictions will remain in place.
“Vaccination levels are already high, but infection levels have risen again,” said Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, leader of the public health institute FHI, at a press conference Friday. “Infection has spread faster here in Norway, as it has in other countries.” The Delta strain of the Corona virus has dominated in Norway since mid-July and more than 1,100 fully vaccinated Norwegians have been infected by it. The fourth phase of reopening, which will remove social-distancing restrictions and limits on social gatherings, thus won’t begin until all adults are protected as much as possible by vaccines. Norway is now due to receive an extra 1.3 million doses of the Moderna vaccine that no longer were needed in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
***Face masks are once again mandatory in Bergen, after the historic city on Norway’s west coast has been hit by another jump in Corona infection. City officials are also imposing a limit of no more than 10 guests in private homes and requiring the use of home offices just as many Norwegians are heading back to work after the summer holidays. “Anyone can be infected wherever right now,” Lubna Jaffery, acting head of Bergen’s city government, said at a press conference on Wednesday. “This is not a situation we want to be in, therefore we’re imposing new restrictions today.” Restaurants will also be required to register all guests, everyone will have to wear facemasks except when seated at tables and drinks won’t be served beyond last call outdoors — all because infection levels are now at their highest level since last November. Corona cases have been rising even though nearly 40 percent of the city’s residents over age 18 are fully vaccinated. Line Vold of the public health institute FHI stressed once again that vaccines don’t offer full protection. She said Wednesday that even fully vaccinated Norwegians can become ill enough that they’ll require hospitalization. A total of 1,137 have tested positive for the Corona virus even after getting their second shot.
***Even though Corona virus infection is rising again in Norway, Health Minister Bent Høie thinks most restrictions will be eased by the end of September. Høie justified the prediction based on the high level of Norwegians who’ll be fully vaccinated by then. “The progress in the vaccination program means we can expect everyone over 18 will have at least been offered their second dose of vaccine in late September,” Høie told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. “Then there’s reason to believe we can live normally in Norway again.” Developments abroad present the biggest source of uncertainty, though, meaning it may still be difficult to travel into Norway.
***Norway’s fourth wave of Corona infection has begun, according to assistant state health director Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad. He could also confirm that fully 90 percent of the new cases of infection are tied to the new Delta strain of the virus, and that 7 percent of Norwegians now being infected are fully vaccinated. That’s as expected, Nakstad told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He also thinks the numbers will rise even as more Norwegians are vaccinated. Vaccines can offer as much as 95 percent protection from the virus and its mutations, but not 100 percent.
The actual number of new Corona cases may also be higher than reported, since many young people and those who are vaccinated don’t take a Corona test. If symptoms are mild, many may assume they’ve just picked up a cold and no longer think it’s important to get tested. Nakstad and other health officials wish they would, and still urge everyone experiencing flu-like symptoms to take a Corona test.
With total infection cases up another 45 percent last week, Norway is now starting its fourth wave of Corona cases. Most of those testing positive are young and have only had their first dose of vaccine if any at all. That’s why the new Delta strain is spreading as much as it is. Nakstad warned once again that the pandemic is not over and that also young people can become seriously ill. He doesn’t think Norwegians can expect normal everyday life as it was before the pandemic began until late autumn.
***City officials in Bergen are reimposing restrictions after Corona infection levels reached their highest level in nine months heading into the weekend. The numbers are also rising in Oslo, but schools are expected to reopen “as normal” later this month. “This was expected,” Oslo’s top politician in charge of health issues, Robert Steen, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday (August 6). “Since the pandemic began, infection levels have risen after every single holiday period. It’s as if people took holiday from fundamental infection prevention rules, too.” He blamed increased mobility, increased socializing and fewer people staying at least a meter apart from one another. Vaccines may not always protect against new strains of the virus either. The numbers of new infection cases aren’t large, but the increase is: 80 percent just in the past week. “We need to understand what’s happening and maintain good infection prevention measures,” Steen said. In Bergen, officials are now recommending a maximum of 10 guests in private homes and imposing rules that once again require bars and restaurants to register all guests, who also will be required to wear face masks when they’re not sitting at a table. Music levels must also be low enough so that people can hear what others say from a distance of at least a meter. Local nursing home residents will also be allowed only two visits a day.
***Neighbouring Sweden’s infection status as finally low and therefore mostly “green” didn’t last long. EU officials have painted the entire country yellow again, while the Stockholm area is red. That means testing at the border and mandatory quarantine if traveling from Sweden to Norway for everyone not fully vaccinated. Iceland and Finland also went yellow (red in the Helsinki area), while all of northern Denmark and the Copenhagen area also turned red with the rest of the country now showing up as yellow. That’s likely to once again disrupt travel among the Nordic nations. Most of Norway remained green with the exceptions of Sørlandet (the southern coast from Kristiansand up to Skien), much of Vestlandet on the west coast and the northern area of Troms og Finnmark.
***Long lines of cars continue to form at border crossings into Norway from Sweden, because of Norway’s ongoing and ever-changing Corona-related entry rules. State broadcaster NRK reported Tuesday that the rules have changed no less than 150 times since the Corona crisis began. “The changes come so fast, so I can understand that folks struggle to keep up,” Gjermund Thoresen, police chief in Kongsvinger, told NRK. He said the police struggle to keep up with border control measures, too. Kongsvinger is located close to the border crossing at Magnor, where lines were long both Monday and Tuesday this week after the neighbouring Swedish region of Värmland finally was categorized as “green” since infection levels fell. That meant it should have been easier to cross the border into Norway, but that wasn’t the case. Both returning residents and non-Norwegian citizens must still document their vaccination status and face possible testing. “When just one person doesn’t have all his or her papers in order, it will take as long to process as 15 people who have all documents ready,” Thoresen said. When Vämland’s green status became clear, lots of Norwegians traveled to the nearby Swedish town of Charlottenberg to buy cheaper groceries, beer and tobacco, among other things. When they all tried to return, it formed massive traffic jams, with many sitting in their cars for hours as they crept closer to the border.
***Infection levels in Norway have risen by more than 50 percent in the last week, with many of the cases linked to both infected travelers arriving on flights from abroad and young partying Norwegians. State health officials are worried, but still don’t see a need for a third dose of Corona vaccine just yet. New numbers from public health institute FHI show that Corona infection was found on board fully 52 flights arriving in Norway last week. A total of 37 of the flights were from abroad, most of them from Amsterdam, while 15 were within Norway. Infected passengers also arrived on four flights from Copenhagen.
Health officials now fear a fourth wave of infection in Norway, after total levels rose 53.2 percent during the past week. Assistant state health director Dr Espen Nakstad is concerned because “very many towns and cities now have a trend of rising infection,” he told news bureau NTB, and that means outbreaks aren’t being controlled before schools open again in late August. “We can have a fourth wave of infection with the delta Virus before we’re finished with the vaccination program,” Nakstad told NTB, warning how that can result in more illness and hospitalizations. “Fortunately very many are being vaccinated in the next few weeks. That will make it easier to control the virus.”
The Delta strain now dominates in Norway, as it does in many other countries as well. State health officials don’t think it will be necessary to vaccinate many with a third shot except for some elderly or people with low immunity. “Right now it’s most important to vaccinate as many adults as possible with two doses,” vaccine researcher Gunnveig Grødeland told newspaper Aftenposten. “That will provide good protection.”
***Infection levels continued to rise in Norway last week, despite a new survey by news bureau Bloomberg that ranked the country best in the world at handling the Corona pandemic. Prime Minister Erna Solberg was pleased, but warned that rankings can quickly change and Norway itself now has “unfortunately rising infection numbers” that confirm how the pandemic is not over yet. Solberg’s government decided earlier in the week to postpone the next and fourth step of its reopening plan, predicting now that things won’t be back to normal until sometime this autumn at the earliest. Norway continues to have among the strictest entry regulations in the world (see below) and some regions including Bergen are reimposing local restrictions after infection levels have steadily risen during the past week.
Bloomberg’s “Covid Resilience Ranking” (external link) cited Norway’s high and widespread vaccination levels, its low death rate and cautious moves to reopen borders. Switzerland and New Zealand ranked second and third respectively after Norway. Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie announced at a government press conference on Wednesday, meanwhile, that the next phase of the country’s reopening has been postponed once again. It was supposed to take place in early to mid-July and now won’t occur until sometime this fall, with a new evaluation due in August. Høie tied the delay to new concerns over developments in several European countries now plagued by the Delta strain of the virus, noting that even countries with high vaccination coverage are struggling with Delta.
***New, stricter entry rules took effect on Monday (July 26). They can mean mandatory quarantine on arrival in Norway, at least for those who can’t document that they’re fully vaccinated or have had the Corona virus during the past six months. Both Great Britain and the Netherlands are now listed as “dark red” with high infection rates again. Even travelers who only have changed planes in either the UK or the Netherlands are thus subject to hotel quarantine in Norway. Norway’s foreign ministry is also advising against all travel that’s not strictly necessary to countries outside the EU/EEA/Schengen area and Great Britain. Spain and Cyprus are also “dark red,” meaning hotel quarantine upon arrival.
Quarantine, possibly at home, is also required upon arrival from other “red” countries (now listed as Andorra, the Færøe Islands, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco and Portugal) and “orange” countries (Belgium and France). Most of neighbouring Sweden remains green except for the regions of Norbotten (orange) and Värmland (red). Most of Denmark remains remains orange or red while Finland has several regional differences.
Norway’s travel rules are based on the public health institute’s own map, the criteria for which varies somewhat from the EU’s. The new map in effect for next week will be published late Sunday night and can be found here (external link to the public health institute FHI’s website).
***Norway’s still-strict Corona rules have made it a less-attractive country for tourists, also from neighbouring Sweden and Denmark. Reports have spread about long lines both at Norway’s international airports and at border crossings on land, and that personnel in charge aren’t always cordial. Newspaper Aftenposten recently wrote about foreign tourists’ criticism of Norwegian “gorillas” upon arrival at passport and customs control at OSL Gardermoen, Norway’s gateway airport. Also that they felt they were viewed with suspicion instead of being welcomed. They’ve referred to “Fortress Norway” on social media and many despised Norway’s use of mandatory hotel quarantine, which has since been eased.
A new survey conducted by the state agency Innovation Norway shows that Norway is less popular in both Sweden and Norway. “One theory can be that Norway has had very strict entry rules and been among the last to open up,” Bente Bratland Holm, tourism director for Innovation Norway told state broadcaster NRK this week. Visitor numbers remain low: 102,571 overnight visits by foreigners in May, compared to 751,255 in May 2019 before the Corona crisis began. Government officials continue to defend the strict entry rules, to keep Corona infection and death rates among the lowest in the world.
***Norwegians have been traveling to Southern Europe even though they may face quarantine upon return. Outbreaks of the Delta strain of the Corona virus have been turning several countries orange and red, but travel bureaus aren’t reporting many cancellations. The first charter tours in 16 months started taking off last week from Norway to Spain’s Canary Islands, with tour operator Ving also resuming routes to Crete, Mallorca and Rhodes this week. “We see in our own and external surveys that travel fever is high,” Marie-Anne Zachrisson of Ving in Norway told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Her firm hasn’t seen many cancellations, rather lots of new reservations even though most of Southern Norway has been enjoying excellent summer weather that’s even warmer than in Las Palmas. Tour operator Tui also reported strong demand for flights to Southern Europe during the next several weeks. Destinations in Greece were most popular, especially Rhodes, Crete and Samos.
***More popular European tourist destinations were no longer “green” with low infection levels heading into the weekend, causing new holiday headaches for those attempting travel outside Norway. Border restrictions may force them into quarantine upon return. The Norwegian government updated its constantly changing travel rules on Friday, with new changes taking effect from midnight Sunday (July 18). All of the UK is now “dark red,” as is Cyprus, meaning anyone arriving in Norway who isn’t fully vaccinated or recovered from the Corona virus in the past six months will face mandatory quarantine, possibly in designated hotels at their own expense. Spain, Portugal, Andorra and the Netherlands, meanwhile, were all listed as “red” on Friday, with Ireland, Monaco and Luxembourg “orange.” The same quarantine rules apply to both orange and red countries.
While Sweden is now mostly green, a new rise in infection levels in Denmark has left those arriving from the Danish regions of Sjælland, Midtjylland, Nordjylland and the Copenhagen metropolitan area will also face quarantine upon return to Norway. Only the southern portion of Denmark, Syddanmark, was listed as green.
It was unclear how many more people arriving in Norway could be denied entry because they present a public health risk. Norwegian official released statistic this week showing that a total of 7,221 people were sent out of Norway during the first six months of the year, 91 percent of them based on Corona-related issues. Only 42 people whose applications for asylum were rejected in Norway were sent out, 31 fewer than in the first half of 2020.
***Dr Camilla Stoltenberg was once again hailing “fantastic participation” in Norway’s vaccination program. “This gives more hope for good flock immunity,” Stoltenberg, head of the public health institute FHI, told news bureau NTB. More than 90 percent of the population aged 55 and over are fully vaccinated. In Oslo, where drop-in vaccination centers were opening this week, fully 80 percent of all those over age 18 have received at least their first dose.
***Norway’s public health institute (FHI) cleared the way for “drop-in” vaccination centers and making it possible for vaccine doses to be shared or transferred to neighbouring municipalities. The goal is still to get as many people vaccinated during the summer holidays as possible. Roughly half of the entire Norwegian population has already received at least one vaccination, and now the youngest age groups are being offered vaccine. Several cities including Oslo suddenly have lots of appointments available in July, when many Norwegian families are away for summer holidays, and have an oversupply of vaccine. Now they’ll be able to offer shots to anyone showing up, and/or pass on vaccine to other towns or cities that need more. In Lillestrøm northeast of Oslo, for example, officials suddenly found themselves with 4,900 available vaccine appointments in July. That means around 4,900 people who were offered vaccine either declined the offer or didn’t respond when they were called in. “This must be because of summer holidays,” the vaccine coordinator in Lillestrøm, Lajla Lyseggen, told newspaper Aftenposten during the weekend. “We’ve never had this problem before.”
***Around 450 fully vaccinated Norwegians have nonetheless become infected with the Corona virus since the vaccination program began in late December. Among them are 26 people who got so sick that they required hospitalization, and 19 have died. “This confirms that the vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective,” Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health department told state broadcaster NRK. The number of those infected only amounts to 0.03 percent of the population but shows that even those who are vaccinated should continue to follow infection protection measures. “We know that as many as 10 percent of those vaccinated can test positive to the virus,” Nakstad added. “Fortunately very few become seriously ill and the vast majority (of those vaccinated) are well-protected from the virus.”
***Another change in Norway’s entry rules has disappointed travelers from the US and some countries in Europe where infection levels have risen. Those arriving from countries that no longer are “green” will once again face either hotel quarantine or quarantine at home when they land in Norway. Everyone arriving from the US faces hotel quarantine from midnight Sunday (July 11) unless they can document being fully vaccinated with Corona certificates issued either in Norway or the US. Quarantine will also be demanded for those returning from Luxembourg, three regions in Finland including the Helsinki area and the island of Crete. Quarantine rules already applied for Portugal and most of Spain, some regions of Sweden and all of the UK.
The change is also affecting many Norwegian tourists who had happily flown off to Crete when it was green and now face quarantine when they return because higher infection levels have made it orange. Among them is Ingjerd Thurmer, who was at least grateful that she’ll be allowed to spend her quarantine at home, since Crete is orange and not red. “We’d been living in a green bubble,” Thurmer told state broadcaster NRK Friday evening, so happy to be back on Crete for summer holidays with her family. She also worried about the livelihoods of those working in the tourism industry on Crete that needs revenues from tourists.
Hotel quarantine will be required for those returning from Cyprus and Portugal along with the US and much of Spain because they’re all now considered “red.” With travel rules still in a state of flux because of rising and falling infection levels, authorities continue to recommend against holiday travel outside of Norway for those who aren’t fully vaccinated. They’re also recommending against all travel outside of Europe and the UK.
***Health officials registered another 227 cases of the Corona virus overnight in Norway in the middle of last week, a volume that was worrisome because it showed a slightly rising infection trend after weeks of decline. The new numbers hadn’t made it into the overall statistics yet, but officials could confirm that the number was higher than that logged on the same day last week. There was an average of 189 new cases per day over the previous week, up from 181 in the previous week. Many are in Oslo, which registered 45 new cases from late Monday to late Tuesday last week. That’s three times the number of cases confirmed during the same 24-hour period the week before.
Infection levels were highest in Nordstrand, an affluent neighbourhood on Oslo’s southeast side. Infection was next-highest in Ullern and Frogner, also prosperous areas on the west side of Oslo, while the lowest infection levels were logged in Grorud, where infection has earlier been high among its immigrant community. The infection situation in the capital has thus changed as the summer holiday season set in.
***Foreign workers are starting to return to Norway after months of closed borders and strict quarantine rules. Two young women from Slovakia could finally land in Oslo this week and proceed to summer jobs at a Norwegian hotel, while farmers can hope their crops won’t keep spoiling in the fields. “We just got on the first flight possible,” Nikoleta Luptakova of Slovakia told newspaper Aftenposten after emerging from immigration, customs and Corona control at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. Like many others, she’s now from a “green” country after Norway started honouring the EU’s system of setting infection risk levels from Monday July 5. That means she and others from “green” countries with low infection levels could travel more easily into Norway.
Norway’s harmonization with the EU rules has led to anything but harmony at border crossings, however. It instead set off a boom in both arrivals and departures at OSL Gardermoen, and long lines at check-in because all documentation must be checked manually. State broadcaster NRK reported that many people missed their flights because of the lengthy delays, ruining longed-for trips and leaving them with financial losses because travel insurance won’t cover missed flights.
Lines are also still long at border crossings into Norway from Sweden. NRK also reported that some border police simply waved several Norwegians into the country without going through all the control steps, just to relieve the chaos. “There are periods with heavy traffic, lots of pressure and huge workloads for those on duty,” Stian Rasmushaugen of the Øst Police District told NRK. “Then some people were just waved through.” Commercial trucks with scheduled deliveries to make are often given priority, while the lines of Norwegians’ cars extended for several kilometers into Sweden at some points on Monday. Average waiting times have declined, however, from around four to five hours last week to less than two hours on Monday.
***A small rural community in Trøndelag was suddenly dealing with a relatively major outbreak of the Corona virus this week. By Tuesday, reported state broadcaster NRK, around 20 percent of the population of Holtålen was in quarantine: nearly 400 of the roughly 2,000 people living in the scenic town just north of Røros. Local officials confirmed 24 cases (two of them so serious that they required hospitalization) and they admitted they didn’t have control over the situation as of Tuesday afternoon. Most were close contacts of those who initially fell ill but hadn’t throught to test themselves. “Folks reported they only had slight headaches, upset stomachs or felt a bit slapp (weary), but didn’t tie it to Corona,” said the chief medical officer in another Trøndelag community, Orkland, that also has had an outbreak. He urged everyone to test themselves no matter how minor their symptoms might seem.
***The Norwegian government plans to offer Corona vaccine to 16- and 17-year olds as soon as the country’s entire population aged 18 and over are fully vaccinated. A final decision is expected in September. “We want to have as much information about the effects of such vaccinations (for younger teenagers) as possible before we start vaccinating people under 18 in Norway,” Health Minister Bent Høie said at a press conference on Monday. “The government will therefore wait with a final decision on vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds until Folkehelseinstituttet (Norway’s public health institute) has made a new evaluation in September.”
Vaccinations of Norwegians younger than 18 wouldn’t begin until October at the earliest. From that point on, Norway will also evaluate vaccinating younger age groups as well in order to build up flock immunity. Calls have also gone out for Norway to donate more vaccine to poorer countries where only small percentages of the population are vaccinated, but under rising threat of the highly contagious Delta strain of the virus. Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized on Monday that Norway must contribute to towards vaccinating at least 10 percent of the populations of all poor countries, which in turn can help fight back Corona for all countries.
***Long lines formed at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen on Monday (July 5), when travel restrictions were finally eased to several destinations in Europe. Airport officials were expecting at least 30,000 travelers through the airport, a small percentage of what used to be the norm but now a spike after 16 months of travel warnings, restrictions and airline groundings. Lines were long because all passengers must check in manually and present various forms of documentation, from passports and Corona certificates to test results and, in many cases, arrival registration documents called a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) for the country to which they’re traveling. The forms are required and used by local health authorities to track arriving passengers if they’ve been exposed to infection during their trip.
***More children, grandparents and sweethearts have been exempted from Norway’s ongoing ban on entry that has applied to most everyone from outside Europe. As of Monday (July 5), the government is allowing citizens from several of the countries on the EU’s list of “safe” countries outside the EU to enter Norway, but only if they’re visiting close family members, and they’ll still be subject to quarantine. The government announced in a press release Friday (external link to the government’s website) that they’d cleared the way for visitors with the following relation to a person living in Norway: adult children and step-children, parents and step-parents of adult children or step-children, grandparents, step-grandparents, grandchildren and step-granddhildren. Sweethearts (partners) over age 18 and any of their young children are also cleared, as long as the romantic relationship has lasted a minimum of nine months and the partners have met each other in person on earlier occasions. That means partners who’ve only met through online dating remain excluded. Norwegians also must arrange for their partners to travel to Norway by applying to the Norwegian immigration agency UDI (external link to UDI’s website) and filling out an electronic application form. There is no charge, but also no means of appeal if an application is rejected.
Closer family members like spouses, partners and their children have already been allowed entry into Norway, but everyone arriving from outside Europe is still required to produce a negative Corona test result before arrival, undergo testing at the border and adhere to whatever quarantine rules apply to the country from which they’re arriving. That generally means quarantine for up to 10 days either at a designated hotel or some other suitable place subject to approval by border authorities. The somewhat relaxed entry rules will also apply only to citizens of the following countries, as selected from an EU list by Norway’s public health institute FHI: Australia, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Serbia, South Korea, Taiwan, the US and Singapore.
***Officials in the northern city of Tromsø are recommending use of face masks again, after a new and large outbreak of the Corona virus. “We don’t have the control of the outbreak that we want and need to quickly tackle it,” the vice mayor of Tromsø, Mats Hegg Jacobsen, said at a press conference on Friday. He said most of the cases stem from various social gatherings lasts weekend. Several teenagers were infected at a party and others at private parties and bars where those involved did not follow infection control measures.
***Norwegian officials have approved compensation payments to two people who suffered serious side effects after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine last spring, and to the family of a woman who died. They’re the first to receive compensation after use of the vaccine, which later was withdrawn from Norway’s vaccination program, led to blood clots and internal bleeding. A total of 77 Norwegians have sought compensation after suffering side-effects, fully 53 of them tied to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Another 11 people complained of ill effects after taking the Pfizer vaccine and six are seeking vaccination after receiving the Moderna vaccine. Vaccines received in seven other cases were not clarified. The amount of compensation paid out was not revealed, but a lawyer for some of the paintiffs said the goal is to cover costs and secure economic security for the survivors.
***The recent rise in confirmed cases of the Delta strain of the Corona virus can delay the fourth phase of Norway’s national reopening plan. Health Minister Bent Høie told newspaper VG Thursday that new restrictions can also be imposed on short notice. The Delta strain, which initially emerged in India, has been on the rise for several weeks now (see below), with Dr Camilla Stoltenberg of the state public health institute FHI calling the increase “considerable.” Now it’s threatening the full reopening of Norway that’s due to click in later this month. “Given the uncertainty tied to the Delta strain, my priority will be to avoid taking a step backwards in the summer month of July, instead of taking another another step forward,” Høie told VG. Ushering in the fourth step of the national reopening plan would involve relaxation of several lingering Corona restrictions, including general infection control measures like social distancing and border entry requirements. Dr Bjørn Guldvog of the state health directorate supports an evaluation of whether the fourth reopening phase should be postponed, “not necessarily for long, but somewhat.” It will ultimately hinge on the overall infection situation in Norway, vaccination levels and the current Corona burden on local hospitals.
***There’s been a sharp increase in the number of confirmed cases of the Corona virus’ Delta strain (initially called the Indian strain). Norway’s public health institute FHI reported on Wednesday that the overall infection trend otherwise continues to decline. FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) reported that the important number indicating average reproduction of the virus since May 27 has fallen to 0.7. FHI cautioned, however, that differences remain among infection trends in various parts of the country. The number of confirmed cases of the Delta strain, meanwhile, has increased from 50 in the last week of May to a total of 353 at the end of last week. Most have been tied to outbreaks, reports FHI, all of which in turn have been traced to people arriving in Norway from abroad. “It’s a considerable increase, but at a very low level,” said Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of FHI, “and it’s not a rapid increase.” She noted, however, that the Delta strain will probably “take over” in Norway as it has in the UK. She said Norwegian health officials will be monitoring developments closely through the summer.
***Oslo’s city government plans to relax most of its remaining Corona virus-related restrictions, if infection rates continue to decline. Among them would be the city’s requirements for use of home offices and ongoing restrictions on the serving of alcohol beverages. From Monday July 5, most people will be able to return to their offices (if they’re not already off on summer holidays) and bars can serve drinks until 3am. High school graduates known as russ can also resume partying. The only major Corona-related requirement will be for ongoing use of face masks on public transportation and in taxis. The city will otherwise follow the more liberal national regulations, that were relaxed on June 20.
***Norway’s summer holidays are setting in, but ongoing Corona restrictions have left hotel owners and other tourism-related businesses worried. With hardly any foreign visitors expected and no cruiseships in the fjords yet, no one is expecting a profitable season. “A piece of the summer soul of Balestrand is gone,” Endre Hovland, who lives in the scenic and historic coastal community along the Sognefjord, told newspaper Klassekampen on Tuesday. Cruiseships no longer dock in Balestrand, but often sail by on their way to Aurland and Flåm. This year cruise traffic is as low as it was last year. Balestrand’s lavish landmark hotel usually attracts bus loads of tourists every summer, but now there are few if any in sight.
Tourism officials all over Norway hope Norwegian tourists will make up for some of the looming losses, at least in the traditional holiday month of July. They’re not known for being as willing as foreign tourists to pay high hotel rates, though, and foreign tourist traffic in August is expected to be weak. Ståle Brandshaug of the local tourism promotion agency Visit Sognefjord warns it will be a “blood-red year” for most in the tourism business, with another 60 percent decline in revenues compared to the pre-Corona year of 2019.
***Many Norwegians continue to use face masks, even though they’re still only required in taxis and when using public transportation. Lots of employees in stores, restaurants, cafés, museums and other public gathering places still wear them, though, as do their customers. “It’s no longer required, but recommended,” said the masked security guard outside an outlet of Norway’s state liquor store chain Vinmonopolet. Most everyone heading in thus opted to put on a face mask, not least since most still carry one. State officials and, more recently, local officials even in Norway’s most restrictive city of Oslo have all relaxed face mask rules. They’re now only recommended if it’s impossible to stay a meter apart from others. With nearly half of Norway’s population vaccinated with at least their first short, the infection risk has declined markedly and remained “stable” for several weeks. Some employers still want their workers who deal with the public to wear masks, for example at a Joker grocery store in Oslo’s Bjørvika district. “We have to continue to think about the Corona situation, and face masks help protect against it,” Sahar Soltani, who works at the Joker store, told newspaper Aftenposten. There are no longer any demands that customers wear masks, but many do: “I think the rule change came rather abruptly, so when I’m in a store, I’ll still wear one,” said customer Kari Kvam.
***Norway looks likely to lead the world in the degree to which its population is vaccinated against the Corona virus. A new study shows that more than 90 percent of Norwegians accept the state’s offer to be vaccinated, which greatly cheers state health officials. “There are so many who want to get vaccinated, and that’s very good news,” Dr Camilla Stoltenberg told news bureau NTB on Thursday (June 24). She said that can greatly contribute to so-called “flock immunity” in Norway. Stoltenberg, who heads Norway’s public health institute FHI that’s in charge of Norway’s vaccination program, also thinks Norway has the world’s highest degree of vaccination coverage. “We initially thought up to 90 percent would accept our offer of vaccine, and that’s sky-high in the world,” she told NTB. “We’re also well above the percentages of age groups that are fully vaccinated. Fully 98.3 percent of all Norwegians aged 75 to 84, for example, have had both shots.
The high level of public confidence in FHI pleases both Stoltenberg and Health Minister Bent Høie. The only downside is that with most all Norwegians eager to be vaccinated, delays have cropped up because Norway’s vaccine supplies haven’t kept up with demand. The pace is picking up now, however (see below).
***Many Europeans with a Corona certificate from their own countries can now travel to Norway without having to go through quarantine. Airport officials were warning of long lines at border entry points, especially at Norway’s gateway airport OSL Gardermoen, but one woman from Denmark who came to visit her mother reported a relatively easy arrival. “The certificate and border control functioned perfectly,” Beate Wegger told state broadcaster NRK. The new EU Corona certificates are issued to those who are fully vaccinated or have had Covid-19 during the past six months. They also enable those arriving from countries with low infection rates not only avoid quarantine but also testing at the border and having to file an arrival registration form. Those countries currently include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, Croatia, Iceland, Poland and Latvia.
***A majority of Norwegians think children as young as 12 should be vaccinated against the Corona virus, according to a new public opinion poll. Norway’s national vaccination program currently targets those age 18 and up, but only 14 percent of the public don’t think children should be vaccinated. The poll, conducted by research firm Kantar for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), showed that 53 percent of those questioned agree that all youngsters aged 12 to 18 should be offered a Corona vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine, which is included in Norway’s program, has been medically approved for use in Europe for children age 12 and up. Norway’s state public health institute FHI is currently evaluating whether to include them in the program. Fully 68 percent of Norwegians think at least 16- and 17-year-olds should be vaccinated, not least following outbreaks of the virus among high school students. The latest was playing out in the southern coastal town of Grimstad on Wednesday, where all Midsummer Eve celebrations were discouraged after an outbreak that’s resulted in orders for around 2,000 teenagers to be tested.
***The pace of vaccinations is expected to pick up dramatically in Oslo over the next two weeks, when the capital is due to receive 161,000 doses. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that around 70,000 doses were arriving this week and 91,000 next week, meaning that at least 100,000 people will receive their first shots. The remainder will be used to fully vaccinate the other 61,000. Around 236,000 Oslo residents aged 18 to 44 still hadn’t received their first shot as of Monday, but that number should be nearly cut in half by end of next week.
Health Minister Bent Høie said at another government press conference on Wednesday that he hopes those who still haven’t been vaccinated won’t take off for any summer holidays until they’ve received their shots. “We completely rely on as many as possible meeting up when called in for their vaccination,” Høie said. “The most important thing to do this summer is to meet up for your vaccination appointment.”
***Norway intends to give away all new deliveries of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine, donating them to other countries in need. The single-dose Janssen vaccine has raised questions over possible serious side-effects, but is still considered safe for many. Even though it was withdrawn from Norway’s vaccination program, along with the AstraZeneca vaccine, the Norwegian government recently allowed Norwegians to take it if they met certain health requirements and needed or wanted to be vaccinated before they were eligible in the national program. An Oslo clinic specializing in vaccinations for those traveling abroad reported strong demand for the Janssen vaccine when it finally arrived in Norway last week.
Norwegians requesting the Janssen vaccine must be cleared by their own doctors that they’re at high risk of being infected with the Corona virus, that the virus would put them at risk for serious illness or death and that they faced long waits for other vaccines. They also must be medically deemed to not be at a risk of developing blood clots. Norway has received 3,885 doses of the Janssen vaccine and was due to receive another 100,000 in July and more than 700,000 in August. They’re now expected to be donated to other countries instead.
***The Delta strain of the Corona virus is being fought back in Norway after making its way beyond strict border control. In one case, it’s believed to have entered the country on a bus from Sweden, along with people arriving from India, several other countries in Asia and the Middle East, plus the UK, Spain and Russia. Newspaper Aftenposten reported during the weekend that the Delta strain has arrived with at least 27 different travelers to Norway. Health authorities think it will dominate most new cases of the Corona virus this summer, but they’re managing to control it and stop most outbreaks. One of the most recent, however, started with a bus trip from Sweden. On board was a passenger from “a country in South Asia” that wasn’t identified, according to Aftenposten. Those on board the bus ended up setting off the biggest alarm, along with those infected by some workers at a quarantine hotel who’d been unwittingly infected by other guests. The latter outbreak and another in Trondheim were quickly controlled and health authorities were encouraged: With quick infection tracking, they believe, it’s also possible to limit or stop the spread of the Delta strain.
***Norway’s strict border control, aimed at preventing imported Corona infection, may cause permanent damage to relations between Norway and Sweden, fears the mayor of Strömstad in Sweden where thousands of Norwegians used to do a lot of their shopping. Tough re-entry requirements to Norway, quarantine demands and unyielding Norwegian officials have taken a toll on neighbouring Swedes who’ve lost lots of business. “A form of nationalism has emerged that doesn’t feel healthy,” Mayor Kent Hansson told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday. He claims it’s led to “polarization between Norwegians and Swedes, on both sides.” The editor of the local newspaper, Strømstads Tidning, also points to “a tougher climate, with people hanging on to their models and thinking that either Sweden did things right or Norway did things right. Then they get irritated at one another.”
Editor Gunilla Håkonsson was also disappointed that her newspaper couldn’t cover the Norwegian justice minister’s press conference at the border crossing at Svinesund on Wednesday that addressed important border issues, and was followed up by another press conference in Oslo Friday: No exemption for the Swedish journalists was granted to exempt them from hotel quarantine requirements in Norway. “News about this is so important for us, and affects our lives much more here,” Håkonsson told NRK, “so I think it’s serious that we were hindered from attending.” Norway’s controversial hotel quarantine demands will, meanwhile be dropped from noon on Saturday for all residents of European Economic Area and Schengen.
There’s long been rivalry between Swedes and Norwegians but it’s mostly been friendly over the past hundred years. Several trying to retain friendship celebrated the 75th anniversary of the old Svinesund Bridge on Tuesday, with cakes baked in both Norway and Sweden. “Norway and Sweden were almost like one country before Corona,” former Halden Mayor Thor Edquist told NRK. “Right now it doesn’t seem like there’s any cooperation between the countries at all. Folks are so tired of this (Corona) now.” His Swedish counterpart agreed: “For those of us living in border areas there hasn’t been a border. What’s happened now is like drawing a line through Oslo and saying those on either side can’t cross it.”
***Norway’s overall infection levels continue to decline, extending a trend that began several weeks ago. There are still some outbreaks, most recently in the coastal community of Færder southwest of Oslo, where 56 people have tested positive with the so-called “Delta” strain first discovered in India. Health officials are otherwise seeing “an ongoing decline in the numbers of confirmed cases” and fewer hospitalizations, according to Line Vold of the state public health institute FHI. She told news bureau NTB that there also are “fewer outbreaks” despite those that recently have cropped up in Færder (Tønsberg, Nøtterøy and Tjøme), Alta, Hammerfest and Trondheim.
The new Corona cases in Færder, believed to stem from a choir’s concert on the island of Nøtterøy, accounted for roughly 10 percent of all those in Norway and the local chief medical officer, Dr Elin Jakobsen, called it “a challenging situation, with a virus different than what we’re used to.” She noted how the new Delta strain “spreads more quickly and we’re seeing that even fully vaccinated people have been infected.” Both she and Vold urged all Norwegians to continue following infection control measures and quarantine regulations, limiting social contact and getting tested “at the slightest sign of infection.”
***Norway is finally poised to start allowing Norwegians who’ve been fully vaccinated abroad to return to their homeland. It remains a demanding process, but the health ministry issued a statement on Wednesday that the government is now “opening up” for registration of Corona vaccines received abroad in the national vaccination register SYSVAK. The ministry stressed that the vaccines received must be among those approved by the European Medicines Agency and that those fully vaccinated have a Norwegian fødselsnummer (the equivalent of a US Social Security number) or a D-nummer (a national registration number often issued to foreign workers or other temporary residents). Applicants must also have an “electronic consultation” with their primary care physician in Norway, health service in their hometowns or a private doctor in Norway in order to document vaccinations abroad. Health Minister Bent Høie said many Norwegians will thus be able to then obtain the new Corona certificates (see below) that can allow Norwegians arriving from abroad to avoid hotel quarantine or shorten their quarantine time. More details are available in the government’s press release (external link to the government’s website, in Norwegian only). Non-Norwegian citizens arriving in Norway from abroad, meanwhile, remain subject to the mandatory 10 days in hotel quarantine at their own expense.
***Prime Minister Erna Solberg defended her government’s strict and ongoing border control, meant to keep imported Corona infection out of Norway. “We can’t stumble at the finish line,” she told newspaper Aftenposten this week after long lines at border control stations and more criticism over how migrant workers, tourists and many others can’t enter without lengthy quarantine. “During this last phase (of the Corona crisis) there are some regulations and challenges we still face,” Solberg said, including the risk of new strains of the virus. “We’re doing our best to keep it out. Therefore we have to ensure that we can verify and have control over the systems needed for folks coming over the border.”
***Norwegian truck drivers declared a “catastrophe” at the border into Norway at Svinesund early this week, after more lengthy delays of up to several hours trying to enter the country. Vehicles including passenger cars formed lines up to 10 kilometers long as they waited for border police to allow them into the country. “Part of the challenge is that police have to spend a lot of time helping people register their arrival,” Ronny Samuelsen, operations leader for the Øst Police District, told state broadcaster NRK Tuesday afternoon. The new forms are now demanded by the government in addition to certification of either being fully vaccinated, having recovered from the Corona virus or having tested negative in the past three days. “This is creating the long lines,” Samuelsen added. “If people had pre-registered their entry, things could have gone more quickly.” That can be done by clicking to reg.entrynorway.no (external link to the government’s website, in Norwegian). The delays are causing major problems for truck drivers, according to the local leader of Norway’s trucking federation, Norges Lastebileier Forbund, Erik Graaud. “We’ve had trucks arriving in the morning and sitting in lines for two hours just to get over the bridge (separating Norway and Sweden),” Graaud told NRK. “I must say this is a catastrophe.” The long lines were disrupting the truckers’ schedules and also delaying their arrival back home because they’d already used up allocated time behind the wheel.
***Norway’s vaccination program was hit by disappointment this week, after the government reported that far less vaccine from Pfizer will be delivered than earlier projected. More vaccine from Moderna will help offset the loss, but delays loom. Norwegian health officials were informed that Pfizer will be sending around 900,000 fewer doses of its Covid-19 vaccine over the next three months. Public health institute FHI, which is responsible for the vaccination program, is therefore recommending that the interval between shots be extended back to 12 weeks, from the nine weeks currently in effect. That will allow more Norwegians to at least get their first dose, despite having to wait longer for the second and final dose. Health Minister Bent Høie said it may be possible to combine Pfizer with Moderna, meaning those receiving Pfizer may be able to follow up with Moderna later if enough is available. The reduction in Pfizer deliveries is nonetheless expected to delay first doses by at least one week, and two weeks for the second doses. Health authorities had hoped that most Norwegians over age 18 would be fully vaccinated by the end of August or early September. Now that may be extended until late September.
***Norwegians can soon start using new “Corona Certificates” to attend such events as football matches, concerts or even any festivals that haven’t already been cancelled. Those who aren’t fully vaccinated can gain entry with a negative Corona test not older than 24 hours. The new certificates started becoming available on Friday, and show vaccination status, any record of having had the Corona virus and Corona test results. They’re currently only in use at border crossings into Norway, to help avoid hotel quarantine, but can now be used for admission to various events and for cruises along the Norwegian coast. The certificates will eventually allow event organizers to admit larger audiences, up to 2,500 people indoors and 5,000 people outdoors when assigned seating is available.
***Norway’s public health institute FHI wants the City of Oslo to further slow its pace of reopening. Oslo officials already postponed their third step in the reopening process, which covers recreational facilities like bowling alleys and bingo halls, for a week because of higher infection levels, mostly among partying high school graduates (see below) and now FHI wants it to proceed more slowly than initially expected. “In order to ensure a controlled reopening, we advise against moving forward with all points in the third step,” FHI announced just before the weekend. It said it was particularly concerned because around 40,000 Oslo residents over age 45 still aren’t vaccinated, meaning a new outbreak could lead to a sharp rise in hospitalizations.
***Long lines formed at border crossings after Norwegian officials began to allow fully vaccinated Norwegians back into the country without going through quarantine. Many braved the prospect of long delays, Corona testing and an ongoing risk of hotel quarantine if new electronic vaccination documents weren’t in order. “Every single person entering the country is being checked,” Justice Minister Monica Mæland told reporters on Friday afternoon. “We are still not in a normal situation and we must still try to hinder imported infection with a new wave and new shutdowns. That’s why we need to use a lot of time questioning each traveler. The more who travel, the longer the queues.” She reminded Norwegians that the government still discourages travel unless it’s absolutely necessary. Neither Sweden nor Denmark were on the ministry’s initial list of countries with infection rates low enough that quarantine could be avoided for those fully vaccinated. At the popular Nordby Shopping Center just over the border in Sweden, many stores remained closed and there were no large crowds yet. Norwegians traditionally drive over the border to shop in Sweden, where prices are much lower and selection can be better. Uncertainty over whether borders could close again or that rules can change have made many reluctant to risk crossing the border until the pandemic is over.
***Norwegian owners of holiday homes in Sweden were considering an appeal to Norway’s Supreme Court, after an appeals court ruled earlier this week that the government was within it rights in ordering them into quarantine upon return from any visits. Around 12,400 Norwegians own a so-called hytte (torp in Swedish) just over the border in Sweden, and roughly a thousand joined in the class-action suit to regain unfettered access to their own properties. They won at the Oslo County Court level but the appeals court found in favour of the state. The Norwegian government has since dropped quarantine requirements for returning residents who are fully vaccinated, but the hytte owners still claim a matter of principle is at stake.
***Graduating high school seniors known as russ aren’t being allowed to ride around Oslo this weekend in their brightly painted buses with loud stereo systems. City government leader Raymond Johansen, who postponed any further reopening of Oslo until next week because of higher infection levels, claimed he wasn’t putting the hard-partying teenagers “in the dog house,” but rather just wanted to prevent more infection from spreading amongst them. “We saw more cases of infection among those who’d been on board russ busses,” Johansen told newspaper Dagsavisen. With no russ rulling (rolling) in Oslo, though, police reported that they had to shut down some large and noisy gatherings of busses in neighbouring communities such as Lier and Hole.
***A new strain of the Corona virus has been found in Norway, and it’s worrying state health officials. It has “very many mutations,” said Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the public health institute FHI, meaning that “we’re following it very closely.” The new strain has been dubbed C36 and doesn’t have a name yet. “This variant is bad news,” Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) doesn’t know yet whether it’s more contagious, can make people sicker og whether current vaccines will be able to fend it off, or be less effective against it.
The new virus was found in May to have infected Norwegians living in the counties of Viken, Vestfold and Telemark. It has some of the same mutations seen in the Alfa (British) and Delta (Indian) strains. It’s also been registered in the Middle East, including Egypt, Stoltenberg said, and there’s a milder version of it. Others aren’t as alarmed as Stoltenberg, including Dr Andreas Christensen of St Olavs Hospital in Trondheim. He told state broadcaster NRK that new virus strains are expected and can be tackled with standard Corona containment measures. The biggest problem now, he added, is the public’s weariness of the Corona crisis and all its restrictions.
***Fully-vaccinated Norwegians will be able to avoid quarantine upon re-entry into Norway from Friday, as long as they test negative at the border or within two days of arrival. Those arriving from countries with high infection rates, however, can still be ordered into quarantine if officials find it necessary to change the rules yet again. Uncertainty and long lines at border entry points still make it risky to travel abroad, and the Norwegian government continues to urge against all foreign travel that’s not absolutely necessary.
***Public health institute FHI has dropped plans to stage large concerts to test whether rapid testing upon entrance can reduce infection risk. While officials in Bergen were willing to allow concerts that could attract as many as 7,000 people, those in Oslo were not. “There are still high infection rates (in Oslo),” said the city’s top politician in charge of health issues, Robert Steen. He worries that any infection stemming from the concert would create an even bigger workload for those trying to trace infection sources. Oslo officials also have enough to do, he said, following up all those ordered into quarantine at home.
***The pandemic in Norway is not over yet, warn both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the head of public health institute FHI, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg. They’re reacting to what seemed to be a statement from one of FHI’s own top officials indicating otherwise. Dr Preben Aavitsland had sent out a message on social media Sunday (June 6) with a graph showing a sharp decline in hospitalization rates and a brief statement that roughly equated to “So that was that pandemic.” He also told state broadcaster NRK that “here in Norway, the pandemic is for the most part over. There are very few people being hospitalized … and the numbers (of those infected) are quickly going downhill while the numbers of those vaccinated are steadily rising. We will see some small outbreaks here and there, but we know how they can be stopped within three- to four weeks.”
Neither Solberg nor Stoltenberg agreed with Aavitsland’s assessment, nor did Dr Espen Nakstad, one of the leading spokesmen for the state health directorate. “We may well be finished with the pandemic something this autumn,” said Solberg, who interrupted her Sunday evening to appear live on NRK’s national nightly newscast, “but it’s important not to celebrate too early. It’s actually right now when we need to make the last major contribution. It’s still important to be careful these next few weeks, so that we don’t have any large new outbreaks.” Stoltenberg also claimed it was “too early for FHI to claim that this pandemic is over in Norway. Preben Aavitsland has himself now clarified that “we still need to go the final round.” Morten Wolden, a top administrator in Trondheim where officials are battling a new outbreak and have shut down the city once again, was not happy about Aavitsland’s initial message: “It’s very frightening to proclaim that the pandemic is over when it’s not.” Nakstad added that “we can’t relax until everyone has received their second dose of the vaccine in August and September. Then we can hopefully live normally again.”
***Norway will be able to claim either Monday or Tuesday (June 8) that more than 3 million vaccination doses will have been injected, including second and final shots. That’s “an important milestone,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said Monday morning. It means 25 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated, in addition to the 33 percent who’ve received their first shot, and that nearly half the population is being protected form the Corona virus. The numbers lag many other countries in Europe, but the vaccination tempo is expected to pick up substantially over the next few weeks as Norway finally receives more vaccine through its agreement with the EU.
***Norway’s complicated and ever-changing Corona rules were altered once again on Friday (June 4), resulting in a bit more relaxation of quarantine requirements upon entry. Those who are fully vaccinated or been infected with Covid-19 earlier can now leave quarantine after three days if they test negative to the virus. A few more countries were added to the list of those from which Norwegians can avoid otherwise mandatory hotel quarantine. Justice Minister Monica Mæland admitted once again that Norway’s rules can cause great confusion and frustration, also among border patrol personnel. More than 100 police officers will thus be added to border control stations to reduce long lines and allow more time for daily briefings on rule changes.
“Those working along the border have been in a demanding situation, as regulations steadily need to be changed and lines of those arriving in the country get longer because of all the demands for documentation,” Mæland said at the government’s latest Corona press conference Friday afternoon. “Border police have been under a lot of pressure because of the pandemic.” So have those daring to travel out of Norway and back in again. It’s the rules regarding re-entry that have been the most erratic and troublesome.
New pending “Corona certificates” to document vaccinations aim to make things easier, but it all depends on infection levels in the countries from which travelers are arriving. Exemptions from hotel quarantine now apply to most of Finland, Iceland and several more European countries including Malta (where 70 percent of the population has been vaccinated), Italy, Germany, Poland, the UK, Ireland and several more, but not Sweden or Denmark.
(For the full list of countries from which arriving passengers can now spend their quarantine period at home, click here, external link to the government’s website, in Norwegian but scroll to the bottom.)
***More than 1,300 graduating high school seniors known as russ were in quarantine in Oslo on Thursday (June 3), following outbreaks of the Corona virus after lots of recent partying. City officials ordered a halt to all russ gatherings for at least the next week. The city stated in a press release that it was all but impossible to track the actual sources of infection because of the russ‘ “large and random networks” and uncertainty over who their close contacts may have been. The sudden and sharp increase in confirmed cases of the Corona virus thus prompted the ban on all russ celebrations until next Wednesday. The ban includes russ from surrounding areas, meaning they can’t travel into Oslo for scheduled outdoor gatherings. City health officials quickly set up more testing stations around Oslo and urged all russ, other youth and their families to test themselves even if they have no symptoms. “It’s important that those who have been to parties get themselves tested, also if they’re not russ,” said Dr Frode Hagen, Oslo’s chief medical officer.
***Norway’s new Corona certificates may be available by mid-June, meaning that Norwegians who’ve been vaccinated would be able to avoid the current 10-day mandatory quarantine. Vaccinated Norwegians will also be able to avoid hotel quarantine at their own expense from noon Thursday, but will still have to go through quarantine at home. Health Minister Bent Høie announced that if all goes as planned, the Corona certificates that effectively can allow travel abroad should be available sooner than expected. They’ll also apply to those who’ve actually been ill with Corona during the past six months and those who’ve only been vaccinated with their first shot at least three weeks prior to reentry into Norway.
Høie now thinks the government will be able to offer “a verifiable Corona certificate with QR codes” by June 11. Then it’s up to the Parliament to approve it, he said at a press conference on Wednesday. He still couldn’t give a concrete answer, however, about when fully vaccinated Norwegians who travel abroad will actually be able to travel back into Norway without even having to go through quarantine at home. Høie said he was “optimistic,” though, that “within a few weeks” it will be possible to travel to Sweden, which has had high infection rates, and avoid quarantine upon return. Sweden and other countries, however, would need to fully re-open their borders as well. State health director Bjørn Guldvog said he was also optimistic: “Now we’re seeing, fortunately, that infection is declining in our neighbouring country. That presents new opportunities.”
The relaxed entry rules won’t apply, however, to anyone vaccinated in countries other than Norway, meaning all non-Norwegian citizens will still be subject to quarantine, also in a hotel. Høie said work is underway, however, on a system under which Norwegian citizens vaccinated abroad could get their vaccinations registered in Norway. A European certificate is still expected to be ready in early July, meaning verifiably vaccinated Europeans would be able to enter Norway without going through quarantine, and vaccinated Norwegians could travel more freely within Europe.
***After several days of warm sunny weather, Oslo officials are reporting a sharp rise in Corona infection levels. Last week’s relaxation of the strictest Corona containment measures has led to much more socializing, and locals flocked to parks and beaches to enjoy the early summer. The rise in infection levels was expected, claimed both state and city health officials. Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate said he thinks it’s better that people were socializing outdoors than indoors. Robert Steen, Oslo’s top political leader in charge of health issues, warned, however, that new outbreaks can flare up suddenly. “We have had a long-term decline in the infection trends and came down to a low level,” Steen told news bureau NTB on Wednesday, “but at the same time, we still have infection in our city.” He said the new numbers for Oslo are “a powerful reminder that we’re living in a more open city with infection.”
***University students are leaving Trondheim earlier than expected, after a spike in infection levels forced the city into a new shutdown. Plans for celebrating delivery of exam papers were spoiled by the shutdown, and most all classroom instruction came to a halt before the summer holidays. “I had planned to stick around for a few more days, to enjoy the great weather with friends after exams,” one student from Drøbak told state broadcaster NRK, but she decided head home. Bars and restaurants have had to close and with infection levels high, partying was hazardous. Those still facing exams can also deliver them digitally from home. “Many people are heading home since the situation is so strict here,” another student said. “There’s no reason to stay.”
*** More than a million Norwegians are now fully vaccinated with their second dose of a Corona vaccine, while another 1.6 million have received at least their first vaccinations. That means nearly half the adult population has now received at least some protection against the Corona virus, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg is pleased. “The tempo and the large numbers of those taking part in the vaccination program are important, if we’re to continue easing restrictions and get Norway going again,” Solberg told news bureau NTB during the weekend. “If we manage to keep infection numbers down, and if deliveries of more vaccine arrive as promised, we’ll be able to move into the third phase of the national reopening within a reasonable amount of time.”
Solberg wouldn’t predict exactly when, or especially when Norwegians and visitors can freely cross the borders into Norway again, but the news from the state public health institute FHI running the vaccination program is good. FHI reported on Monday that nearly 35,000 Norwegians received their second dose during the weekend, bringing the total of fully vaccinated to 1,006,268, nearly 19 percent of the population. In addition come another 1,637,918 who’ve also had their their first dose, or around 31 percent of the population. The combined number of roughly 2.64 million amounts to 49.8 percent of the population with less risk of becoming infected with Covid-19.
***Despite declining infection rates nationwide, the Corona crisis is far from over in Norway as outbreaks continue to flare in various towns and cities. Trondheim was forced back into shutdown modus on Monday (May 31) as the new Indian strain continued to infect local residents (see below). City officials in Trondheim cracked down on socializing, with a limit of two guests in private homes, a ban on all public arrangements and closure of gyms and public swimming pools. Universities and colleges were limited to digital instruction only and all organized sports for everyone age 20 and over were halted. The city also banned the serving of alcoholic beverages, meaning most bars and restaurants would probably close, too. The cities of Kristiansand and Hammerfest are also undergoing similar shutdowns this week.
***Prime Minister Solberg is happy that Oslo is able to start reopening but her choice of a place to celebrate it with a drink last week sparked criticism. She headed off to a bar in Oslo’s trendy neighbourhood of Grünerløkka, but it wasn’t among those that’s suffered closures, had to lay off staff and could finally reopen. Instead, reported local media including VG and Dagens Næringsliv (DN), it’s a bar owned by one of her former top political advisers, Sigbjørn Aanes, who’s now a partner at the powerful First House communications firm. Other owners include one of Solberg’s many former justice ministers, Tor Mikkel Wara, former transport minister Jon Georg Dale and former state secretary Ole Berget, all of the Progress Party. The bar had also opened in a location where another had gone out of business during the Corona crisis. “My first reaction is that it’s strange the prime minister chose to visit a new bar, when we have a city full of bars and restaurants that have worked so hard to get through the crisis,” the owner of a local reopened restaurant told DN. “When I heard who’s behind the new place, I was even more disappointed. I think she should support those who’ve been fighting (to stay in business), not her old colleagues.”
***The Indian strain of the Covid-19 virus has spread in Oslo and Viken County, after an outbreak at a quarantine hotel in Viken earlier this month. Hotel staff are believed to have unwittingly spread the highly contagious strain of the virus further, with state health officials suspecting there currently are around 50 cases in the Oslo area. Public health institute FHI confirmed in a new report that the Indian strain has spread to other areas in Oslo and Viken after the outbreak at the unidentified quarantine hotel. “We don’t know yet how big the outbreak really is, but we’re tracking the infection and expect to find more cases,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI told state broadcaster NRK on Saturday afternoon. FHI also reported that there’s a “medium- to high danger” that the Indian strain will spread further in Norway.
“Since it’s more contagious, we expect that within a month or two, there will be more cases (of the Indian strain) than there are of the British strain, which now dominates in Norway,” Aavitsland said. Neither he nor other FHI officials think it will halt the reopening of Norway currently underway, however, because the country’s vaccination program is moving forward. Line Vold of FHI also noted that infection prevention measures in Norway remain strict and have proven to be effective.
Vaccination doesn’t always help: FHI confirmed in its new report that three of those found to be infected with the Indian strain had been vaccinated with their first dose, two of them more than three weeks after receiving it. Two others were infected a few days after receiving their second dose. That’s a reminder that the vaccines currently being offered don’t fully protect people from the virus, even seven days after the second dose. Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate said the staff at the quarantine hotel probably weren’t vaccinated: “Most hotel workers are in age groups that haven’t been vaccinated yet, but we don’t have a full overview yet.”
***Norway’s southern city of Kristiansand was shut down again this weekend, after new outbreaks of the Corona virus. Gyms, swimming pools, cinemas, museums, theaters and the local university were closed. Bars and restaurants were ordered to stop serving alcohol, meaning many of them were likely to close, too. The leader of a local business organization called it “a catastrophe for the city,” which is a popular tourist destination especially in the summer months. The city’s chief medical officer said residents “need to view this as two more weeks of strict measures and then summer will be here, many more will be vaccinated and we’ll be better prepared,” hopefully for a reopening from June 12.
***Working from home is more popular than many thought, at least in Norway. A new study shows that more than 60 percent of Norwegians still want to work often from home even after Corona containment measures are dropped. The study, conducted by researchers at Oslo Metropolitan University at the request of Norway’s Labour Ministry, showed that 30 percent want to work from home at least two days a week, 21 percent opted for one day and 14 percent wanted three to four days. Only 5 percent never want to have to work from home again, while another 5 percent want to work from home all the time. The remaining 25 percent, who clearly missed their colleagues, opted for just one day a month at home or less.
The results surprised Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who told state broadcaster NRK that he thought Norwegians were tired of working from home. Now his ministry wants to change some rules, to clarify liability for work-related injuries at home, how much responsibility employers have for working conditions, equipment and the psycho-social milieu, and other work-related issues. “Home offices can’t be a lawless zone,” Isaksen said.
Home offices also have lots of climate and environmental advantages, because of the reduced need for commuting. Many respondents also felt they worked more efficiently at home, were subject to less interruptions and enjoyed more flexibility in daily life. Many also worked more than they did otherwise, for better or worse, perhaps because it was easier head back into the home office after dinner.
***Infection continues to spread in the northern city of Hammerfest, with parents in the 40- to 60 age group who aren’t fully vaccinated yet being infected by their children. “I’m worried, I have to honestly admit that,” Hammerfest Mayor Marianne Sivertsen Næss told state broadcaster NRK on Friday. Another 37 residents received positive Corona test results on Friday, bringing the current total to 259 in a city with a population of just 11,000. Few, however, are seriously ill.
***Almost the entire population of Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago controlled by Norway, has now been vaccinated. Nearly 3,000 people live in Svalbard, around 2,400 of them in the main city of Longyearbyen. It can now boast that 90 percent of all residents over age 18 are fully vaccinated, the equivalent of 75 percent of the total population. Svalbard was given priority distribution of the vaccine sent to Norway, because any virus outbreak in the isolated community would have been difficult to handle.
***Trondheim is battling an outbreak of the British strain of the Covid-19 virus that’s left the city with its highest infection levels since January. Some of the infection has been tied to use of the same entry door into a residential building, showing how easily and quickly the British mutation can spread. After low levels of infection in recent months, it’s spiked since the long Ascension Day- and 17th of May holiday weekend. Nearly 300 new cases of the virus have been registered since, 39 on Thursday alone: “Analyses from St Olavs Hospital show that it’s all the British variant,” Trondheim’s chief medical officer, Dr Tove Røsstad, told state broadcaster NRK.
Many of those infected live in the same apartment building, but had no social connection otherwise. Trackers of the source of infection could determine, however, that they’d all used the same entry door. That prompted Røsstad to stress the importance of hand hygiene: “Wash your hands when you come indoors,” she urged. “Such basic rules are more important than ever.” Local officials are mostly blaming “a bit too much socializing” on the 17th of May, after at least 54 of those infected had all been at the same nightclub in Trondheim. The increased infection forced officials to restrict the serving of alcoholic beverages and order use of face masks in all public places. Social contact is limited to five people a week, and only two guests at home.
***Norwegian border control measures will remain strict, the government confirmed on Wednesday, with everyone expected to undergo up to 10 days of hotel quarantine at their own expense with few exceptions. Only those arriving from European countries with low infection rates will be able to go through quarantine at home. “I understand that this is complicated, but the goal is to avoid imported infection,” Justice Minister Monica Mæland said at a government press conference Wednesday afternoon. She stressed that work was continuing on a proposed “Corona passport” that will allow Norwegians who’ve been fully vaccinated to travel within Europe and be exempted from quarantine upon arrival back in Norway. The new document may be available before the EU offers its own version, expected around July 1.
Anyone arriving in Norway from outside the EU, the European Economic Area or Great Britain will still be subject to hotel quarantine for the full 10 days, unless they deliver a negative test result after seven days. Those arriving from European countries with infection rates higher than 150 per 100,000 must stay in a quarantine hotel until they have delivered a negative test result after three days at the earliest. Then they must carry out the rest of the 10-day quarantine period at home or another suitable location.
***Norwegian students who’ve been studying abroad will no longer have to pay their portion of 10-day hotel quarantine costs, currently NOK 500 per day. The government will now pick up the full cost of the hotel stay when they return home to Norway for summer holidays. “I understand that it can be difficult for students to take the bill for the quarantine hotel,” Justice Minister Monica Mæland announced on Wednesday. “I’m glad we can present this solution.” Asked at a government press conference whether foreign students studying in Norway will also be exempted from the hotel quarantine costs, Mæland replied with a “clear ‘no.'” They’ll still have to go through quarantine and pay for it themselves, until the infection situation has eased to the point when hotel quarantine will be dropped entirely.
***Norway’s vaccine allotments are being reshuffled yet again, after new calculations by health authorities indicated that some municipalities would have to give up more than 35 percent of the doses they were due to receive. That’s unacceptable, the government agreed, meaning that 24 areas in and around Oslo will now get fewer extra doses. The state had announced a vaccine reallocation earlier this month, aimed at sending more doses to Oslo and other nearby municipalities with the highest infection rates in the country. All were due to get 60 percent more doses. Now they’ll get 45 percent more than originally allocated, with Health Minister Bent Høie stressing that more doses are also on the way to the country as a whole.
The leader of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen, was disappointed, not least since the city is finally allowing bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums and other public places to reopen this week. He’d counted on more Oslo residents getting vaccinated, but now there’s a bigger chance infection rates will rise. “This isn’t good,” he told news service Avisa Oslo. Høie, however, stressed that both Oslo and the country as a whole should be able to tolerate a gradual and controlled reopening, especially since border control remains strict in an effort to keep out imported infection. “We’re less vulnerable now,” Høie said, adding, however, that “we still need to keep infection levels low.”
***Norwegian health authorities are suddenly recording another increase in confirmed cases of the Corona virus, and said the “trend was rising.” Officials admitted they’d “lost control” of an outbreak in the northern city of Hammerfest, stores and restaurants had to close again in Hamar, Trondheim was facing a new closure and the number of cases also rose slightly in Oslo. Hammerfest has a population of 11,000 and has in recent years been home to an expanding oil and gas industry. It went into lockdown heading into the long holiday weekend and is now dealing with its biggest virus outbreak so far. Locals were also furious on Tuesday that lists identifying those who’ve tested positive were circulating on social media. Police were called in to investigate the apparent leak of sensitive information.
Hammerfest’s infection rate is now the equivalent of 1,400 per 100,000 residents, which is why it’s viewed as so serious. Farther south in Hamar, located between Oslo and Lillehammer, the numbers are much lower but high enough that local officials also ordered a social closure. While large areas of Norway are preparing for a reopening, the opposite may occur in Trondheim, where the city and its large student population have seen a rise in infection since the 17th of May holiday weekend. Thousands were in line to be tested. Norwegian authorities registered a total of 238 new cases nationwide from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday, 37 more than last Monday. The average for the week was 450 new cases per day, up from 354 the week before, so the trend was classified as “rising.”
***Even though most of Norway is poised to start reopening, the sports club behind the country’s large international football tournament have decided to cancel Norway Cup for the second year in a row. All the restrictions and limitations that would still be necessary to prevent the spread of virus infection would have spoiled the experience for the children and youth participating, according to Bækkelagets Sportsklubb. There’s also still lots of uncertainty over whether borders will reopen by late July, when Norway Cup has traditionally attracted as many as 30,000 young football players. Organizers now look forward to mounting a major comeback in the summer of 2022, when the tournament is due to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
***The Norwegian government is moving forward with its plans to reopen the country after 15 months of strict Corona containment measures. Residents will soon be able to drink alcoholic beverages until midnight without having to also order food, for example, but travel restrictions will remain in place until at least July 1. Stricter local measures can override state rules, but the country as a whole is on its way towards a return to normality because of lower infection levels, fewer hospitalizations and ever-rising vaccination rates. Even Oslo, which has been shut down since early November, announced reopening plans on Friday. They’re not as liberal as the new national rules, but restaurants and bars can at least reopen from Wednesday May 26, along with museums, cinemas, theaters and other gathering places.
The new national rules (external link to the government’s website, in Norwegian) will apply from Thursday May 27, Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced at a midday press conference Friday. They involve all of the second step of opening plans announced earlier including getting schools and day care centers back to normal operation. Rules that restricted all unnecessary travel have now become “recommendations,” meaning that Norwegians can travel more freely around Norway again.
Controversial hotel quarantine rules will remain in place, however, for all travelers arriving from abroad, also Norwegians returning home. They’ll be eased somewhat, though, for those arriving from EU/European Economic Area countries where infection levels have declined to 150 per 100,000 residents – currently only Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Visitors and returning Norwegians from such low-infection European nations will be able to spend their minimum seven-day quarantine period at home or at another suitable location.
***Norway’s northen city of Hammerfest was back in lockdown on Friday, just as plans were being announced to reopen other parts of the country. The reason: An outbreak of the Corona virus that’s been linked to partying teenagers and young adults in both private homes and a local nightclub during the past two weekends. All schools, day care centers, libraries, stores and other public gathering places were closed. Only grocery stores, the local Vinmonopolet and pharmacies were open heading into Norway’s last three-day weekend until Christmas.
***The southern coastal cities of Larvik and Kristiansand, both popular holiday destinations, were also cracking down on Corona virus outbreaks heading into Norway’s Pinse (Pentecost) holiday weekend. Kristiansand recorded 85 new confirmed cases of the virus on Friday, 50 of them high school graduates known as the partying russ. Larvik’s outbreak was tied to similar recent outbreaks in nearby Skien, Porsgrunn and Bamble. Vestfold and Telemark, where all are located, are now the regions with the most Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents (243), with the British strain of the virus dominating the statistics. Several hundred people are in quarantine.
***Complaints rolled in quickly after Health Minister Bent Høie announced another geographic re-allocation of vaccine in Norway. The goal is to deliver more vaccine to 24 municipalities in the southeastern region around Oslo, where infection remains highest, but that will come at the expense of 309 other municipalities around the country and they’re not pleased. “This will affect the entire region and make us more vulnerable,” complained the leader of the city government in Bergen, which won’t have to give up any vaccine itself but neighbouring communities will. The mayors of Larvik, southwest of Oslo, and Sandnes, just south of Stavanger, were also disappointed upon learning that they’ll be losing vaccine doses.
Høie, however, is following the professional recommendation of public health institute FHI, which urges an increase in the vaccination tempo in and around Oslo. It’s long been the epicenter of the pandemic in Norway and is also the country’s largest population center. FHI recommended that 23 of the country’s other cities (including Bergen, Kristiansand, Trondheim and Tønsberg) retain their current allocations, while the 309 others will be getting roughly a third of what they initially were promised. Høie countered the complaints by claiming how vaccinations of more people in the country’s largest population centers will allow the entire country to reopen more quickly after 15 months of strict Corona containment measures. He also stressed that Norway is due to receive “a lot more” vaccine in June and July, as hopes rise that the Corona crisis will wind down by late summer (see below).
***Pandemic and vaccine skeptics have been bombarding Norwegian officials all over the country with critical and even threatening emails. Many are written in poor Norwegian or English, contain much the same content and are clogging the officials’ in-boxes and interfering with other work. “I want to say to anyone thinking about sending more such mail, that I have taken the point,” Tønsberg Mayor Anne Rygh Pedersen told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. “You don’t need to send 150 more.” The mayor of Porsgrunn, which is emerging from an outbreak of the Corona virus, said he’s also been a target of mail that claims the Corona virus doesn’t really exist, that Corona tests are false and that vaccine is part of a conspiracy. One mail alone was a 100-page letter that baffled a top official in a small municipality in Northern Norway. It was also sent to 406 other state and local officials on Norway’s Constitution Day holiday on the 17th of May. Freedom of expression and public procedures demand that all mail must be registered and taken seriously. A lawyer for Norway’s national municipal association, however, noted that the mail doesn’t need to be answered beyond a standard reply that it was received and added to the public journal.
***Former Finance Minister Siv Jensen, who recently stepped down as leader of the conservative Progress Party, faces fines after admitting that she violated Corona containment measures during a party at her mother’s home on the 17th of May. She’s the latest top Norwegian politician to break anti-infection rules and apologize profusely afterwards. “I’m so sorry about this,” Jensen told TV2, after admitting that more than 10 people had gathered at her mother’s home to celebrate Norway’s Constitution Day on Monday. She said that of the 13 people present including herself, five had been vaccinated: “We weren’t aware that the new health rules allowing exemptions for people protected from the virus don’t apply in Oslo.”
Oslo police will now investigate and determine whether charges and fines will be lodged against Jensen and other party guests, as they were against Prime Minister Erna Solberg after her less-than-happy 60th birthday party in February. Jensen told TV2 that “if we’re fined, I’ll of course pay.” A law professor at the University of Bergen doubts there are legal grounds to punish Jensen and other guests, though, telling NRK on Wednesday that Oslo officials didn’t present good enough reasons for not following the national guidelines.
***Trondheim has recorded its highest number of new Corona virus cases since mid-January. Two known outbreaks resulted in 18 people being confirmed on Tuesday with the virus and many others forced into quarantine. “We’re seeing a considerable increase in infection,” local official Morten Wolden told state broadcaster NRK Wednesday morning. National infection levels continue to decline, however, maintaining hopes that the Norwegian government will continue with a cautious reopening of the country.
***Norwegian owners of holiday homes over the border in Sweden have been back in court, to demand and defend their right to finally be able to visit and stay at their own properties. They’ve effectively been banned from going to their hytter since the Corona crisis began 14 months ago, since strict quarantine rules upon return still make overnight stays all but impossible. Calls are now going out for state officials to “have more confidence” in the roughly 12,400 Norwegian owners of Swedish hytter who simply want to regain access to much-loved retreats. At present, they’re still only allowed short day trips to perform what’s considered “necessary maintenance.” The hytte owners prevailed at the Oslo County Court, which agreed the Swedish hytte ban was far too invasive, but the state appealed the hytte owners’ victory, claiming state officials must continue to have full power to make rules in line with the infection situation. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized that the state’s appeal “can hardly be based on any real fear of a dramatic increase in Corona infection if some Norwegians cross the border to paint their hytter in Sweden.” At issue is confidence in the authorities, and in this case, a 14-month ban on hytte use can seem unreasonable. Even officials at the state health directorate and public health institute FHI have said that visits of up to 72 hours won’t increase the infection risk. FHI believes that infection risk is minimal if the Norwegian hytte owners travel in their own car and refrain from contact with any others. Norway’s borders, however, remain mostly closed after the government was criticized for failing to control imported infection. DN editorialized, however, that “it seems much too strict to put hytte owners in the same category as all others coming over the border.”
***The pandemic will be over in August, at least in Norway, predicts Dr Preben Aavitsland of the state public health institute FHI. He thinks it’s time to offer an optimistic message, just as most Norwegians were trying to celebrate their second national day on Monday amidst lots of ongoing restrictions. “Things are going in the right direction now,” Aavitsland told newspaper Aftenposten during the weekend prior to Monday’s annual 17th of May holiday. It was all but washed out in Southern Norway because of rain and Corona restrictions, but “in two-and-a-half months, it (the Corona crisis) will be mostly over,” believes one of FHI’s top officials.
Aavitsland cited “extremely effective vaccines” and the vast majority of Norwegians’ “widespread willingness to get vaccinated.” With most Norwegians expected to be fully vaccinated by August, he doesn’t think there will be much infection left in Norway. Cases that do pop up, he said, are unlikely to be serious. The pandemic has dragged on much longer than initially expected and Norwegian officials have continued to impose strict Corona containment measures. Aavitsland doesn’t think there will be a need to restrict the numbers of people allowed to gather outdoors in public by the end of summer. “I think the situation will be like it was in the good old days,” Aavitsland told organizers of an annual political gathering in his hometown of Arendal. Restrictions may continue to apply to indoor events, though, depending on the infection status.
***18-year-olds in Oslo will be able to get vaccinated from the first week in June, reports newspaper Aftenposten. It wrote during the weekend that young residents of the capital are already getting text messages from the city saying it’s possible to start booking vaccination appointments. All Norwegians aged 18-24 have been moved to the top of the vaccination list, since infection rates have been highest among them and because the government altered its vaccination program last week. The youngest adults can now be vaccinated at the same time as the 40-44 age group, leaving those aged 25 to 39 last. Oslo is also getting more vaccine because it’s consistently been the epicenter of the Corona virus in Norway.
***Prime Minister Erna Solberg defends her government’s decision to go along with health authorities’ advice and send more Corona vaccine to regions where infection is highest. It means other regions will get less, but Solberg insists that will benefit the entire country. The reallocation announced last week has sparked fury among some mayors of towns and cities that now will receive less vaccine. Mayors in Vestfold and Grenland, where infection suddenly has spiked, are mostly from the rival Labour Party but also include one from her own Conservative Party that gathered over the weekend for its annual national meeting. Solberg admitted on Friday that the vaccine reallocation was “a difficult decision to make.” She believes, however, that the evaluations and recommendations made by state public health institute FHI (responsible for Norway’s vaccine program) will help allow the country to reopen as planned. The reallocation of vaccine, she told NRK, is important for bringing Norway out of the Corona crisis.
***Health authorities in Bergen have confirmed eight new cases of the new Indian strain of the Corona virus that’s been sickening and killing thousands of people in India. The new cases in Norway are all tied to a relatively small outbreak at the University of Bergen. Local officials believe they have control over the outbreak, reports newspaper Bergens Tidende. The outbreak stems from an employee at the university who infected four colleagues and a few other close contacts. All were ordered into quarantine or isolation. University officials reported that none of their employees has been on any work-related trips to India.
No further information was provided as to how the university employee was first infected. Officials at both Norway’s state health directorate and public health institute FHI were following the situation in Bergen closely, since the Indian strain is believed to be even more contagious than the British strain that was largely behind Norway’s recent third wave of infection. Dr Espen Nakstad of the health directorate has earlier expressed concern that outbreaks of the Indian strain can threaten Norway’s re-opening plans (see below).
***The entire crew on board a ship carrying iron ore was in quarantine in the northern city of Narvik’s harbour on Wednesday, after an outbreak of infection that has left one person dead. State broadcaster NRK reported that officials from Norway’s maritime directorate had boarded for a routine inspection while the IVS Pebble Beach, which had arrived from Rotterdam on May 5, was waiting for docking space in Narvik, a major port for iron exports. The inspectors were unaware of the infection on board but were wearing face masks and other protective gear. Both have since tested negative for Covid-19 but maritime officials are now investigating why the directorate had not been informed of illness on board in advance. The Filipino crew later raised a yellow flag, signalling infection on the ship. One crew member was declared dead on Tuesday but results of Covid-19 testing undertaken Wednesday morning were pending. A total of 21 people were in quarantine as of Wednesday afternoon.
***Oslo officials won’t be opening up the Norwegian capital much further until at least May 27, city government leader Raymond Johansen announced late Tuesday. High schools will be able to ease some of their restrictions from May 18th but restaurants, cafés and bars must remain closed, along with exercise studios, cinemas and other gathering places.
***Norway’s strict new quarantine rules for most everyone arriving from outside the EU and Schengen areas are causing problems for top athletes during the run-up to the Olympics. The mandatory 10 days in a quarantine hotel upon return to Norway will spoil their training programs, meaning that several will need to drop out of competitive events abroad. Track and field stars Jakob and Henrik Ingebrigtsen, for example, may need to withdraw from the Diamond League opening event in England on May 23, since England is now outside both Schengen and the EU. “If these new (quarantine) rules aren’t changed, none of my boys can travel abroad to compete,” the brothers’ trainer and father Gjert Ingebrigtsen told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. Another athlete, Hedda Hynne, is also evaluating whether to drop competition in Doha on May 28.
There’s a lot of frustration because of the new rules, confirmed Erlend Slokvik, head of Norway’s track and field federation (Norsk Friidrettsforbund). He told NRK that both athletes and their coaches are upset because “they can’t sit for 10 days in a quarantine hotel where they wouldn’t be able to follow their training programs,” Slokvik said. “It’s impossible.” Missing key pre-Olympic competition is also highly unfortunate since it’s part of the qualification process for the Olympics, which also is at risk because of high infection levels in Japan. Norway’s national athletics federation is asking the Justice Ministry to allow top athletes to spend their quarantine time in their own homes or another suitable location. The government has so far refused to offer any exemptions from the mandatory hotel quarantine imposed as of May 9. (The government ended up dropping the hotel quarantine rule for arrivals from the UK … click here for more details.)
***Young Norwegians aged 18 to 25 should be allowed to move to the front of the Corona vaccination line, according to a government commission. It thinks that could help prevent further spread of the virus, outbreaks of which lately have been linked to gatherings of partying high school graduates called russ (see below). “Summer and looming holidays away from school make it wise to vaccinate youth to hinder spread of the virus,” said commission leader Dr Lars Vorland on Monday, while also presenting the commission’s recommendation to remove the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines from Norway’s state vaccination program. “We think it’s a good idea (to vaccinate young Norwegians before older ones).” Vorland also noted that college-age Norwegians are among the most mobile members of society, especially in connection with the end of the school year and moving home, to new jobs or to other schools. It’s ultimately up to public health institute FHI, which runs the state vaccination program, and the government to decide whether young Norwegians should have priority over the age groups now getting vaccinated (those in their late 50s-early 60s). “We’ll make a decision on whether the 18- to 25-year-olds should move forward in the queue,” said Health Minister Bent Høie, “but we’ll wait for a more thorough evaluation from FHI.”
***Election officials in Oslo are planning for drive-thru voting in the Norwegian capital, if the pandemic prevents voters from casting their ballots as usual in the upcoming Parliamentary election this fall. No one knows what kind of restrictions will still be in place by election day on September 13. “The goal is, of course, to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to vote, also if you’re in quarantine or sick and in isolation,” Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen told newspaper Dagsavisen. She leads the election board and added that among means of ensuring such opportunity is drive-thru voting, “so that folks can sit and vote inside their own vehicles.” She’s hoping, though, that infection levels will have fallen by then, while the numbers of those vaccinated will have risen.
***It’s official: Another of Norway’s most popular summer music festivals, Øyafestivalen, has been cancelled because of Corona-related restrictions. “This feels like a nightmare,” stated Øya chief Tonje Kaada just before the weekend. The festival, due to take place at Tøyen in Oslo from August 10-14, has been cancelled for the second year in a row. Kaada cited “too much uncertainty” about the framework for a festival and limits set even by the “best case scenario” that would allow 5,000 people to attend. Those holding tickets can use them next year at a 2022-version of the festival already in the works.
***Norwegian officials fear the Indian strain of the Corona virus can threaten the country’s reopening plans. Both the state health directorate and public health institute FHI cite the “exponential” spread of the deadly Indian strain, which indicates it’s even more contagious than the British strain. In a new recommendation sent to the health ministry, the health professionals urge the government to make hotel quarantine obligatory for everyone traveling into Norway from countries outside Europe. The quarantine should be mandatory, they argue, regardless of whether the travel is necessary. The Indian strain is already spreading in Europe as well, however, with FHI noting that cases of it are doubling every week in Great Britain. There are also fears that existing vaccines won’t be as effective against it. British officials are working to prevent the Indian strain from gaining a foothold, with rapid and door-to-door testing.
***Norway seems to have eradicated the South African strain of the Corona virus that was infecting as many as 100 people a week or more in early March. That’s when it peaked, and there are hardly any signs of it in Norway now. A total of 769 people in Norway have tested positive to the South African mutation, which was viewed as highly contagious and blamed for worsening the country’s third wave of infection. Only two cases of it were confirmed in early May, however, one in Oslo and one in the northern county of Troms og Finnmark. “That can indicate,” writes public health institute FHI, “that the infection chain of this virus variant has been broken in Norway.” That’s good news, tied to what appears to be persistent tracking of the strain that hindered its spread. Those testing positive for it are also being hailed for following infection control rules and going straight into quarantine.
***Norway’s tradition of hosting various summer music festivals around the country is under threat again because of the Corona virus. Organizers of the popular OverOslo festival, featuring magnificent views over the city from its venue in the hills at Grefsen, cancelled the event on Wednesday. So did organizers of the Stavern Festival in the maritime town southwest of the capital: “There was unfortunately no way around” the decision, festival leader Ole Christian Mørk told newspaper VG. The Øya and Palmesus festivals may be scrapped as well, because of ongoing uncertainty over whether they can be held given all the ongoing restrictions on travel, assembly and the serving of food and drink.
***Hopes remained that the huge Norway Cup annual football tournament can still be held in late July. If so, however, it will not be the international event it’s meant to be, with children’s and youth football teams from all world participating. Both the Dana Cup in Denmark and Gothia Cup in Sweden have already been cancelled, but organizers are hoping at least Norwegian teams can meet to compete in Oslo from July 31 to August 7. “We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll be in a situation that will make it possible,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said this week, “but it would have to have a very good infection control regime.” Norway Cup was cancelled last year.
***Norway may soon hold its first “test concerts” with as many as 30,000 people participating in the experiment to monitor infection risk. The state public health institute FHI will carry out Corona tests of all participants, to see whether going to a large concert can be just as safe as watching TV at home. Researchers at FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) are proposing such concerts, with around 5,000 people in the audience at each, to be held in June. There would be no social distancing demands among concert-goers nor would participants have to wear face masks. Plans call for recruiting 30,000 members of the public who’d like to go to a concert. Only half would actually attend the concerts, while the other half would live normally. All both attending and staying home would be tested before and after the concerts are held, allowing researchers to compare how many may become infected with the Corona virus in the control groups and then determine whether attending such concerts increases the risk of infection. It hasn’t been decided where the concerts would be held or who would perform, but they’re likely to be indoor venues in Oslo, where infection has been highest. Those attending will likely be aged 18 to 30 or 40 and all would need to certify that they have no underlying health problems or risk factors. A regional health ethics committe and state health authorities will decide whether the project can proceed.
***Norway’s business and trade minister is quarreling with Oslo’s government leader Raymond Johansen over her government’s plans to allow more businesses to bring in foreign workers. Johansen fears they’ll bring more imported infection with them, while Trade Minister Iselin Nybø claims he’s painting an undeservedly poor picture of foreign workers. Nybø told newspaper Aftenposten that only 1 percent of those testing positive in Oslo have been infected abroad, while Johansen counters that 90 percent of all infection in Oslo involves the British strain that initially came from abroad. She’s concerned about all the businesses who’ve gone months without access to the labour force they need. Johansen counters that the state should mobilize laid-off Norwegians to step in for the foreign workers. Employers and farmers who use cheaper foreign workers contend that’s not always easy.
Oslo has remained mostly closed while other areas of Norway have opened up. Johansen, from the Labour Party, is under pressure to at least allow stores to reopen soon, as merchants complain they’re losing business to stores open just outside the city limits. Johansen is most concerned with keeping infection levels low and under control. Nybø, a member of Norway’s Conservatives-led government, agrees the infection situation means the country must continue to limit entry to Norway as much as possible. “At the same time, the strong restrictions have considerable consequences (on business) and we must try to maintain activity in Norwegian companies in order to preserve jobs.”
***State oil & energy company Equinor was having to deal with Corona infection on board one of its oil platforms in the North Sea on Monday. A worker tested positive onboard the Gullfaks A, sending another 15 workers into quarantine. “The plan is to fly the infected worker to land,” Equinor spokesman Morten Eek told newspaper Bergens Tidende. All other air transport to the platform has been halted because of the infection on board.
***Several organizations are worried Corona infection will spread again after another weekend of parties and large gatherings of people that exceeded regulations, especially in Oslo. The May 1st holiday on Saturday and graduating high school students known as russ contributed to the excessive socializing. Police patrolled gathering places such as the park at St Hanshaugen in Oslo, informing those gathered that their numbers needed to be reduced. In the southern town Mandal, around 600 people including the entire graduating class at Mandal High School were in quarantine Monday after 11 russ tested positive to the Corona virus. The teenagers were disappointed, their families also were quarantined and Mandal’s mayor said he was disappointed over those who took part in “rolling” parties even though Corona had forced cancellation of most weekend events.
“They think only about themselves and not all the others who have (underlying health) problems and are especially afraid of Corona infection,” said Tor Eivind Johansen, leader of Norsk Revmatikerforbund, which helps those with rheumatism. Johansen stressed on NRK’s national radio Monday that contracting Corona can be fatal for many who haven’t yet been vaccinated. The head of Norway’s diabetes federatoin was also worried, and upset. “Most people with diabetes under age 60 have not been vaccinated,” Bjørnar Allgot told NRK. Many are still isolating themselves, he said, for fear of infection.
***Bergen officials opted against easing Corona restrictions on Monday, offering only some relief for children and youth. They’ll be allowed to once again take part in indoor sporting events from Tuesday, including swimming lessons, but social contact otherwise remains strictly limited. “I wish I had good news for everyone, but the situation in Bergen unfortunately doesn’t allow that,” Roger Valhammer of the Labour Party, which leads Bergen’s city government, said at a press conference Monday. He stressed that infection levels in Bergen remained too high and he was disappointed by lots of outdoor gatherings and parties during the weekend and a lack of social distancing. “The big parties we’ve seen are not okay,” said Beate Husa of the Christian Democrats, in charge of health issues in Bergen. “It’s irresponsible.”
***Police have issued NOK 40,000 in fines to a couple in their 60s who refused to stay at a quarantine hotel after arriving back in Bergen from a holiday trip to Spain. They’re charged with violating infection control measures. They claimed they could just as well spend their quarantine time in their own home, but prosecutor Laila Skeide said their “unnecessary” trip abroad did not qualify for them for any exceptions to the hotel quarantine regulation imposed on March 19. The man and wife were thus fined NOK 20,000 each (USD 2,400). So was a man in his 20s from Førde who broke his obligation to remain in isolation after testing positive for the Corona virus. He received several visitors while in isolation at home.
***Norway aims to get more people vaccinated by increasing the interval between the first and second shots. The government is extending it from six to 12 weeks, meaning everyone aged 18-45 will now be offered vaccine five weeks earlier than planned. Health Minister Bent Høie said the government was acting on the recommendation of public health institute FHI. “When we increase the interval, many more people can get vaccinated earlier,” Høie stated in a press release issued Friday afternoon. “That will help hinder both serious illness and death, and contribute towards reducing infection in society.”
It also means more young people will be able to get their first shots beginning in mid- to late July, instead of from late August. Infection has increased most among Nowegians in their 20s and 30s. Earlier vaccinations can also help ward off new infection waves after the summer holidays and when classes resume at high schools, colleges and universities. The new intervals will take effect from May 3 but won’t affect those who’ve already had their first shot and have appointments for their second six weeks later. Those appointments will still be honoured. Those with underlying illnesses or in high-risk groups will also continue to be offered vaccinations six weeks apart.
***Expats in Norway from other European countries must be allowed to re-enter the country, editorialized newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. It was reacting to how the government has suddenly tightened entry rules for those not holding long-term residency permits in Norway, as a means of preventing imported Corona infection. There have been several dramatic cases recently of EU and EEA (European Economic Area) citizens who’ve been living and working in Norway being turned away upon arrival, and sent back to their country of citizenship. The government is now allowing entry or re-entry only to those with permanent residence permits and listed in Norway’s Folkeregister.
That violates Norway’s trade agreement with the EU, claim several legal experts. EEA citizens who live in Norway, they claim, should be treated just the same as Norwegian citizens and permanent residents, and allowed entry. “It’s fine that the government has finally tightened border control,” Aftenposten editorialized, “but the rules must be the same for all. Those who live in the country must be able to re-enter after going through quarantine and testing negative to the virus, whether they’re Norwegian or from other EEA countries.” Justice Minister Monica Mæland, however, showed no sign of remorse or sympathy with those who’ve been turned away when addressing the issue at a press conference this week. She claimed that the new rules have been adequately communicated and are necessary for infection control.
***Corona containment measures are being blamed for ongoing bureaucratic delays in obtaining or renewing residence permits or acquiring citizenship in Norway. It’s now taking as long as 10 months for immigration agency UDI to process citizenship applications even after applicants have finally had all their documents approved by the police – a process that itself took at least another nine months last year. That means thousands of expats finally eligible for dual citizenship probably won’t be able to vote in the upcoming national election in September despite starting what was supposed to be a new “automated” citizenship process early last year.
Now Norwegians themselves are also facing long delays in obtaining or renewing their own passports. Even though Norwegians may finally be able to travel abroad again this summer, many won’t have valid passports because it currently takes months to get a passport appointment. The situation is also jeopardizing expats’ hopes of visiting family abroad if their residence permits are up for renewal. Police officials claim they’re trying to “increase capacity” to process applications, but “we have a large backlog of those who weren’t able to renew their passports last year (when the Corona crisis began),” Lars Blomquist of the passport office in Oslo told newspaper Aftenposten.” Those needing new passports, he said, will just have to follow the police website all the time, in the hopes more appointment slots may be made available.
***Fully vaccinated Norwegians can now have more close contact with others who also are fully vaccinated, Health Minister Bent Høie confirmed on Wednesday, but only in private homes. They’ll still have to observe all the same infection control measures as everyone else when in public, including social distancing and use of face masks. There wasn’t much liberalization of Corona rules at Wednesday’s latest government press conference. Even though vaccines can hinder the spread of infection, Høie claimed there’s still a risk and that’s why those vaccinated can’t have too many privileges while out in public. They can have close contact with those outside high-risk groups, however, so most grandparents can at least once again hug their grandchildren, he said with a smile. He and Justice Minister Monica Mæland stressed that Norway can’t reopen too soon or too quickly. He hopes the government can allow stores, restaurants and some other public places to open during Step 2 of the government’s reopening plan, perhaps sometime in late May.
Mæland also announced stricter entry requirements for everyone arriving in Norway from India, Bangladesh, Iraq, Nepal and Pakistan because of high infection rates in India that can spread to bordering countries. “The situation in India is extremely serious,” Mæland said, raising the risk of imported infection and new virus mutations. All arrivals face mandatory testing and must now spend at least 10 days in a quarantine hotel. Norway, meanwhile, is in talks with Indian authorities over how it can best help the country as it deals with its worst infection crisis so far.
***Retailers in Oslo are “deeply disappointed” by the city government’s decision to keep all stores and shopping centers closed, especially when those in neighbouring towns reopened this week. “When neighbouring communities have reopened for shopping, this distorts competition and increases mobility,” Bjørn Næss of the local retailing association (Oslo Handelsstands Forening) told newspaper Aftenposten. “Many stores are sitting on large inventory, and it’s especially important that seasonal wares can be sold. We are deeply disappointed that the city is still keeping stores and restaurants closed.”
***Around 350 soldiers and civilian employees in Bodø are being mass tested this week after an outbreak of the Corona virus tied to the defense community in the northern Norwegian city. Nine new confirmed cases of the Covid-19 have all been traced to defense forces, with indications the infection was imported. Bodø’s chief medical officer Dr Tor Claudi feared a new infection wave among military personnel.
***Seven Corona-related deaths have been registered in the past 10 days at Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) just northeast of Oslo, reports local newspaper Romerikes Blad. A hospital official declined to comment further on the deaths, but it brings Ahus’ total number of fatalities tied to Covid-19 to 60. There currently are 43 Corona patients admitted at Ahus, down from 70 earlier this spring, when some patients had to be transferred to Oslo University Hospital because of a lack of capacity at Ahus.
***Norway’s state reopening plan can probably proceed, says Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health directorate, since infection levels continue to decline nationwide and the numbers of people vaccinated continue to rise. “We are absolutely going in the right direction,” Nakstad told news bureau NTB on Tuesday. Nakstad’s comments marked the second day in a row with optimistic assessments from state health authorities (see below). Infection has also fallen for the sixth week in a row in Oslo, prompting city government leader Raymond Johansen to roll out his own “gradual” and “cautious” program to reopen the Norwegian capital.
The optimism is also shared by the general public, according to results of a public opinion poll conducted by research firm Opinion. Only 30 percent of those responding think infection rates will rise again, while 40 percent think they’ll keep falling. The remainder think infection levels will remain unchanged. Nora Clausen of Opinion told NTB that all earlier polls have indicated that a majority of the public expected rising infection levels. April’s poll marks the first time that wasn’t the case.
***”Now there’s reason to be optimistic,” Dr Bjørn Guldvog, head of Norway’s state health directorate, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) during the weekend. He noted that infection rates are falling while the numbers of those getting vaccinated are rising. He expects most all Norwegian adults will be fully vaccinated by the end of July. Guldvog, like most other health authorities in Norway, has been cautious about getting Norwegians’ hopes up. They’ve been most keen on encouraging everyone to keep following both state and local infection control measures, with local rules often more restrictive. He made a point of noting that many remain infected around the country. Infection rates have been highest in Oslo and the surrounding area. “But we can look forward to good news in the weeks ahead,” Guldvog told NRK. “We expect to get twice as much vaccine in May than we received in April. At the same time, we see that infection levels nationwide are declining rapidly.” He noted that they’ve been cut in half during the past month in both Oslo and Viken County.
***Police had another busy weekend all over the country, trying to control partying Norwegians who weren’t following Corona containment measures. As many as 1,000 people gathered in the St Hanshaugen Park in Oslo, mostly in small groups but too close together, Brian Skotnes of the Oslo Police District told state broadcaster NRK. They were also violating laws against drinking alcohol outdoors: “It got so bad that police had to break up parties and order people to leave.” Officials have been worried that warmer weather will tempt Norwegians to gather both outdoors and indoors for spring parties. It was still cold and windy this past weekend over much of the country, also in Oslo, but that didn’t stop one group of young people from hanging up balloons, popping open champagne bottles and celebrating a birthday together. State broadcaster NRK ran photos of the empty bottles left behind (external link to NRK’s website).
***Norwegian residents born in other countries now account for around 60 percent of all the Corona virus patients currently hospitalized. A majority have roots in South Asia, and doctors suspect they are genetically more at risk of becoming seriously ill. The latest report from state public health institute FHI indicates that immigrants and their descendants in Norway are suffering most from the Corona virus. People who have moved to Norway are also overrepresented in Covid-19 infection statistics. Health officials have earlier noted that many immigrants are more at risk because many live in densely populated areas and have large families or jobs that leave them highly exposed to the general public. Some have also felt obliged to travel home, to Pakistan or India, for example, and returned infected. Now some doctors at Oslo University Hospital are also citing research that suggests genetic factors leaving South Asians sicker if infected with Covid-19 or mutations. Many of those hospitalized are also younger than the average age of Corona patients. Calls have thus gone out to expand vaccination programs in areas with high immigrant population, while the immigrants themselves are being urged not to travel to their homelands. All face 14 days of quarantine upon return.
***As expected, Oslo city government officials opted against easing local Corona restrictions this week. “Even though the numbers are going down, we had more than 1,100 new cases of infection in Oslo last week,” said city government leader Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party. He said a new evaluation of restrictions will be made next week.
***All Norwegians who have received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine will now be offered either Pfizer of Moderna for their second dose. Use of the AstraZeneca vaccine remains suspended in Norway until at least May 10, when a new evaluation of Astra Zeneca is due. “There’s a need to clarify second doses before the evaluation is delivered,” Health Minister Bent Høie stated in a press release on Friday. Around 135,000 people in Norway, most of them health care personnel, had been vaccinated with AstraZeneca before it was removed from the vaccination program because of several cases of serious and even fatal side-effects. Now many are due for a second dose. The government is following advice from Norway’s public health institute FHI, which now recommends that they all receive vaccine from either Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
***Despite declining infection levels in Norway, there will be no further easing of national restrictions in connection with Constitution Day celebrations on the 17th of May. Areas with high infection levels will have even stricter local rules than those applying nationwide. “We can’t let up now, therefore the national rules and recommendations in place will also apply on the 17th of May,” government minister Abid Raja confirmed at the government’s press conference on Thursday. Any guests invited home or to holiday homes will be limited to five, everyone must stay at least a meter apart, outdoor arrangements are limited to 20 and to just 10 in rented venues. Most 17th of May parades have already been cancelled, including the largest in Oslo. The capital also has maintained rules that are stricter than the national ones, with only two guests allowed in private homes. All socializing is still discouraged.
***Corona infection levels in Norway have declined by nearly half since they peaked in mid-March, according to new data from public health institute FHI. That raises prospects that the government will be able to proceed with its cautious reopening program in May and restrictions may be eased even Oslo, which has had the highest infection rates. Last week’s 3,717 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus are down 43 percent from the same time last month. FHI also reported that 2.9 percent of everyone tested last week were positive, down from 3.3 percent the week before. Deaths are also down, from 21 during the first week of April to 18 last week and five so far this week.
***Norway’s borders will remain mostly closed until at least May 12, the government announced on Tuesday. Even though the third wave of infection has crested, with the numbers of new Corona virus cases on the decline, government officials think it’s too early to allow unrestricted entry into the country. “We all hope that we’ll continue to see a descending curve in the infection situation,” Justice Minister Monica Mæland stated in a press release. She added that the government is constantly evaluating current restrictions and whether they can be eased. They concluded that the situation remains too fragile to expose Norway to the risk of more imported infection. “We’re still caught in a serious situation,” Mæland said. “It’s therefore necessary to extend the strict entry rules.” Norway’s borders have been closed since January 29 with just a few exceptions.
***After just recently easing Corona restrictions, Bergen is tightening them again. City officials were not pleased that residents flocked to newly reopened outdoor cafés, restaurants, parks and private homes and partied without observing social distancing, especially while standing in line for tables. Bars and restaurants have already been subjected to controls and were ordered to enforce social distancing when customers are waiting in line and place tables farther apart. If crowding continues, warned city government leader Roger Valhammer of the Labour Party, they’ll be forced to close again. Stricter rules were also directed at children and youth, with all public swimming pools, amusement parks, bingo parlours, bowling alleys and other places that attract youngsters closed again. The city also reduced the number of guests allowed in private homes back down to two.
***Public health institute FHI confirmed that Norway will receive an extra 1.18 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of July. A total of nearly 2 million doses will arrive by the end of August, meaning that “everyone will be vaccinated much earlier” than expected, according to Geir Bukkholm of FHI. The extra doses will also help offset the loss of AstraZeneca doses if they are permanently removed from Norway’s vaccination program because of some serious side-effects. The government recently postponed a decision on the use of AstraZeneca because of how removal would slow Norway’s recovery from the Corona crisis. Norwegian officials have, meanwhile, declined an offer from Russian officials to receive deliveries of their Sputnik vaccine but only because Norway isn’t buying its vaccines directly but rather through the EU, which hasn’t yet approved Sputnik for its program.
***Norwegian police were busy all over the country during the weekend, as the state’s first phase of re-opening prompted lots of parties that were noisy and exceeded limits on guests allowed in private homes. Warm spring weather also led to outdoor gatherings where social distancing rules weren’t followed. State broadcaster NRK reported Sunday that police handed out dozens of citations and fines tied to violations of Corona containment measures. The government started the first step of its reopening program on Friday but it still contains lots of restrictions.
In Oslo, police broke up parties at Majorstua, Bekkelaget and Vindern, among other places, and fined a total of 33 people mostly in their 20s. Other parties were halted in Trøndelag, Molde, Kristiansund, Bergen, Stord, Kirkenes, Hammerfest, Alta and Troms. In Sørlandet along the southern coast, where the weather was especially sunny and warm, partying started in the afternoon and continued after bars and restaurants had to stop serving alcohol at 10pm. Police responded to complaints in Kristiansand, Grimstad, Arendal, Flekkefjord and Farsund. In Vestfold and Telemark the partying involved large gatherings of cars with festivities going on around them. Outdoor cafés and restaurants, especially those along waterfronts, were packed in Bergen, Arendal and many other coastal cities after they were allowed to open and pour drinks until 10pm. Oslo and several cities in Viken County, however, have continued their shutdowns because virus infection levels are still high.
***Norway was relieved by news Friday that it will be getting twice as many vaccine doses as expected in July. Pfizer will be delivering as many as 1.5 million doses, instead of the 710,000 expected. The news comes just as the Norwegian government continues to deliberate whether it should resume use of the AstraZeneca vaccine (which has been linked to serious effects) or follow the state public health institute’s recommendation to remove it from Norway’s state vaccination program. Another 510,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine are also expected in July, meaning that the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be needed after all. “This is very good news, and very good in terms of securing operations (of the vaccination program in Norway),” Geir Bukholm of the state public health institute FHI told state broadcaster NRK. Extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine are also expected in June.
***No one is being fined after a defiant group hug at a demonstration against Corona restrictions in Oslo last weekend. It attracted around 200 people who criticized health authorities and defiantly burned faced masks, but police claimed it was in line their democratic rights. The decision comes shortly after Prime Minister Erna Solberg was fined NOK 20,000 because 13 of her family members gathered to mark Solberg’s 60th birthday at a dinner in Geilo that Solberg herself couldn’t attend. Police nonetheless decided against fining any of the demonstrators even though their numbers exceeded local limits and they rejected social distancing.
“The arrangement was a political demonstration,” Harald Nissen of the Oslo Police District told state broadcaster NRK, and thus not subject to Corona containment measures. A law professor at the University of Tromsø confirmed that it’s judicially difficult to deny anyone the right to demonstrate peacefully, even during a pandemic. More demonstrations are planned in the weeks ahead, even after the deaths of at least two people after an illegal gathering at Gran in Hadeland late last month. All attending also opposed Corona restrictions. At least a dozen others who attended the event have tested positive to the virus. Many aren’t cooperating with local authorities trying to track the infection and warn others who’ve been in contact with the infected.
***Health authorities are now reporting a “sinking infection trend” around Norway, as the spread of the Corona virus declined in many areas. The number of confirmed cases last week was down 6 percent from the week before and down 19 percent from the week before that. Public health institute FHI reported that 3.3 percent of the 144,496 people tested last week were positive. That’s also much lower than during the Easter holidays. Fully 72 percent of all infection, however, has been found in Oslo and its surrounding Viken County, as calls escalated that those areas should be allocated the largest numbers of vaccine doses.
***Faced with a looming shortage of vaccine in Norway, the head of an expert group studying Corona’s economic impact is urging an extension of the period between the first and second shots. That would allow more Norwegians to get their first shot, and that can help prevent the spread of infection. Steinar Holden, a professor of economics at the University of Oslo, leads the government’s panel that’s evaluating the social and economic consequences of the Corona pandemic. He was responding Wednesday to news this week that Norway likely won’t be receiving an expected 1 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in June (see below) because of concerns over its side-effects. Use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, meanwhile, remains under suspension because of similar concerns.
“It will be even more important that the vaccine we do have is used in the most efficient manner,” Holden told state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday. Oslo, meanwhile, is already allowing for six weeks between shots for those in low-risk categories, up from two- to three-week intervals earlier in the year when elderly Norwegians at higher risk were being vaccinated. “Studies show you can get good protection from just the first dose,” Holden said. Holden is also urging state officials to allocate more vaccine to areas with high infection and less to those with low infection rates. That’s music to the ears of Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen, who called for more vaccine for Oslo on Wednesday. Oslo has had Norway’s highest infection rates and is thus among areas, Holden notes, where there’s more risk of residents becoming sick or even dying than elsewhere in the country.
***Problems with the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine may delay completion of Norway’s state vaccination program by as long as eight to 12 weeks, state health authorities confirmed on Tuesday. That means young Norwegians may not be able to get their shots until well after the summer holidays. “It will slow the vaccine tempo if the vaccine doesn’t arrive,” Line Vold of the state public health institute FHI said at a press conference Wednesday. Around a million doses of the J&J vaccine (also called Janssen in Europe) were expected to arrive in Norway in June. If the troubled AstraZeneca vaccine remains on suspension, there will be “considerable” delays in the vaccination program, Vold said. Prime Minister Erna Solberg seemed to downplay the news Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson is delaying the introduction of its vaccine in Europe after it was connected to blood clots and internal bleeding in some users in the US. Such serious side-effects are what also prompted the AstraZeneca suspension in Norway, even though it remains approved for use by the European Medicines Agency.
***Long lines formed at the Covid-19 testing station in the northern city of Bronnøysund on Tuesday after an outbreak of the virus at a construction site. At least 32 people were confirmed infected and they had lots of close contacts, setting off alarms in the city with a population of only around 8,000. “This is dramatic, children are testing positive, too,” the local mayor, Eilif Trælnes of the Center Party, told state broadcaster NRK. “There’s enormous pressure on our testing station.” The infection was traced to the building site of the new state registry office (Brønnøysundsregistrene), and workers for its building firm Veidekke. All of Brønnøy municipality, which extends beyond the city limits, went into lockdown as of midnight Monday.
***The city of Steinkjer in Northern Trondelag was under lockdown this week after 12 residents tested positive for a new California mutation of the Corona virus. It’s led to a major outbreak in Steinkjer of the mutation that’s believed to be 20 percent more contagious than the original Covid-19 strain. Three cases of it have been registered in Norway earlier in the counties of Viken, Vestland and Oslo. A total of 36 people have tested positive for Covid-19 during the current outbreak in the municipality of around 22,000 residents where infection had been very low until now. State broadcaster NRK reported that around 2,500 people in Steinkjer are in quarantine.
***Corona-related restrictions are being eased in 55 municipalities around Norway and more may be added to the list. There haven’t been many signs of a rise in post-Easter infection, according to the state public health institute FHI, and the numbers of new confirmed Corona cases are now declining. Officials are thus already letting some restrictions run out on their expiry dates this week in 19 municipalities of the large Viken County, six municipalities in Vestfold and Telemark and around the Haugesund area, for example. Officials in Halden, which runs along Norway’s southern border to Sweden, are also reopening stores and several other public places even though nearby Sarpsborg and Fredrikstad remain mostly under shutdown. So do Oslo, Asker, Bærum, Drammen and Moss, all of which are expected to remain under the strictest measures in the country. The government was planning to announce more details regarding specific regulations later this week.
***Even strict Labour government leaders in Oslo are now arguing in favour of allowing vaccinated residents to visit one another, travel and use public transport. Opposition politicians want to go futher and open up stores, restaurants and other activities to those who can confirm immunity or vaccinations. “FHI (Norway’s public health institute) reported during Easter that those who are vaccinated don’t infect others,” Anne Rygg, leader of the Conservatives’ bloc on the Oslo City Council, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “That must mean that they should be able to move freely in society. It would be a good way to begin reopening the city.” City government leader Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party isn’t so sure, noting it would give some people preferential treatment and pose ethical dilemmas. As more and more people get vaccinated, he thinks the problem will solve itself, with many restrictions due to ease or disappear this summer. Norway’s overall “R-tallet,” which charts how many people one person with Corona can infect others, also fell to 0.86 heading into the weekend. Oslo continues to have the highest level of infection in Norway.
***Police in Nordland are dropping a case against eight Labour Party politicians who gathered for a party of their own in a Bodø hotel room last month. The gathering didn’t violate national Corona containment measures, prosecutors concluded, even though Bodø itself had just recently tightened its anti-infection rules. The decision to drop the case came on the same day that police in southern Norway announced they were fining Prime Minister Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party, after her husband invited 12 other family members to a dinner in Geilo to celebrate her 60th birthday. That put them over the limit of 10 at the time but only Solberg herself was fined, even though she couldn’t attend the party because of an eye infection. The Labour gathering, which included Labour’ deputy leader Bjørnar Skjæran, was found to have fallen outside rules against gathering and drinking alcohol. It had already been dropped by local police once before, but reopened on the request of state prosecutors. Both Skjæran and other participants were questioned and he has apologized for joining the “embarrassing” party, held after the Nordland Labour chapter’s annual meeting. He and all the others have now avoided fines that could have amounted to at least NOK 10,000.
***Vaccination tempo is rising in Norway, despite suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and now calls are going out to allow top officials to get vaccinated even though their age groups haven’t yet come up in the queue. “Give (Prime Minister Erna) Solberg & Co vaccine,” read the headline on an editorial in Norway’s biggest newspaper, Aftenposten, recently after some top aides to government ministers were infected as was Oil Minister Tina Bru. “Good crisis leadership is critical, but Solberg hasn’t been given priority in the queue,” editorialized Aftenposten, nor has Health Minister Bent Høie, public health institute (FHI) leader Dr Camilla Stoltenberg or either of the two top leaders of the state health directorate, Dr Bjørn Guldvog and Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad. “It’s fine to maintain that politicians shouldn’t have privileges (something Solberg has experienced first-hand) but it’s also important to have leaders who won’t go down for the count. If it makes it more fair, let opposition party leaders be vaccinated, too.”
***Even if Norway starts re-opening, Oslo residents likely face ongoing restrictions. Infection levels in the capital remain high, and Oslo’s strict city government leader Raymond Johansen doesn’t see much relief any time soon. “We’re far from any reopening,” Johansen told news bureau NTB after Prime Minister Erna Solberg revealed her government’s tentative reopening plans in Parliament this week. Solberg herself confirmed during her address that local restrictions will take precedence over any national easing of the state government’s rules and recommendations. Johansen has no plans to propose any reopening plans this week or next. “It’s wise that the government hasn’t set any concrete dates for easing various measures,” Johansen said. He doesn’t see much chance for a reopening until infection declines considerably and lots more residents get vaccinated. Much more vaccine is expected to be delivered over the next several weeks, though, and the city is moving ahead with its vaccination program. The government’s goal is to vaccinate everyone over age 18 by the end of July.
***Norway surpassed 100,000 confirmed cases of the Corona virus on Wednesday, a dubious distinction that confirms a recent rise in infection levels. It seems to have levelled off, however, and reaction to Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s plans to control infection and gradually ease restrictions was generally favourable. Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour Party and the opposition in Parliament, was the first to respond to Solberg’s address to Parliament on Wednesday. He thanked the prime minister and noted that “we all share the hope” that the Corona crisis will soon ease. “People are exhausted but patient,” Støre said, noting that even if Solberg’s four-step reopening plan for Norway can proceed as normal, Norwegians still face many more weeks of restrictions on everyday life.
Støre went on to claim, though, that the Norwegian government “must work to acquire more vaccine,” ward off a fourth wave by improving border control, increase testing capacity and improve programs to address new mental health problems among both adults and children. Member of Parliament Trond Helleland, who leads the parliamentary delegation for Solberg’s Conservative Party, responded that Norway has done better than most other countries during the Corona crisis. The main goal now, he said, is to provide more predictability and offer real hope that some normality will return during the summer.
***Never before has Bærum registered so many confirmed cases of the Corona virus as on Tuesday (April 6). The affluent area just west of Oslo is seeing much more infection within the age group 10-19, and among children. All day care centers were closed on Tuesday but were reopening at the “red alert” level on Wednesday. Schools have been closed with only home instruction offered to everyone over the fifth grade since March 18. Infection has risen nonetheless, with 68 new cases logged on Tuesday and 449 during the past two weeks. That’s the highest level since the pandemic began and it comes even after fewer residents tested themselves during the long Easter holiday weekend. Top health officials are tracking infection developments closely this week, after the holiday period, to determine the need for ongoing Corona containment measures.
***Health Minister Bent Høie is worried infection will now increase after the Easter holidays, just like it did after summer, Christmas, New Year and winter school holidays in February. It’s likely that national Corona containment measures will continue beyond next week, when they were supposed to end. “We’ve had some positive developments during Easter,” Høie said on Monday, but added that fewer people were tested during the holiday period that began last Thursday and continued through Monday. He urged everyone with even the slightest symptoms to get tested this week. “It’s important in general, but now it’s extra important when we need the best possible overview over the (Corona) situation,” Høie said, as Norway approached 100,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Prime Minister Erna Solberg is due to report to Parliament this week on her plans for eventually re-opening Norway, which restrictions will need to stay in place, and for how long.
***There’s hope that Norway’s third wave of Corona infection will soon be cresting, says Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health directorate, after detecting declines or at least stability in new numbers of confirmed cases. He worries, however, about prospects for spring parties and other social contact after the Easter holidays. As the weather gets warmer “it will be easier to meet outdoors,” Nakstad told news bureau NTB. That’s better than indoors, he notes, “but we fear there will be too much socializing within age groups where infection levels are still high. That can quickly lead to major outbreaks, because the virus mutations that dominate in Norway and the rest of the world now are considerably more contagious than before.”
There already were signs of social gatherings during the Easter holidays, with families and even large groups of young people seen gathering around campfires along skiing trails or outside hytter (cabins) in popular winter sports areas. Restrictions against all social arrangements and having guests at home remain in force until mid-April.
***”It’s an Easter miracle,” contends Dr Preben Aavitsland of Norway’s public health institute FHI. He was referring to new studies in the US that show how both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines not only protect those vaccinated from becoming infected by the Corona virus but also prevent them from spreading it. “This is very positive,” said Aavitsland, a soft-spoken man from Norway’s southern coast (Sørlandet) who’s become a familiar face and voice in Norwegian media. “Since those vaccinated can only to a small degree be infected, they they can’t infect others eithers,” he told state broadcaster NRK as the long Easter holidays were beginning this week. “We can now remove those vaccinated from the portion of the population who can contribute to the pandemic.”
The studies from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) examined data based on the vaccination of 4,000 American health care workers. Just one dose of the vaccines offered 80 percent protection after two weeks or more, and 90 percent after the second dose. The studies were done in cooperation with others conducted in Great Britain and Israel. Aavitsland added that as more and more Norwegians are vaccinated, the need for all the national rules and regulations now restricting daily life can be reduced, some of them this spring. “This gives hope that we can soon put the pandemic behind us,” he told NRK, also writing on social media that “the Easter miracle came early this year.”
***All Norwegians over age 18 can now expect to be vaccinated by mid-July, according to the public health institute FHI. That confirms the government’s long-held expectations that Norway will be getting back to normal during the course of the summer. Geir Bukholm of FHI, which is responsible for Norway’s vaccination program, now expects “only a short delay” of around two weeks in FHI’s vaccination calendar. Most Norwegians in the age group 18-44 will probably also be fully vaccinated by August because they’re slated to receive the single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. It has said that around 52,000 doses will be delivered in April, much less than the 310,000 expected but Bukholm said he’s confident the entire shipment will show up. “We haven’t received any indications that the rest won’t be delivered,” he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday afternoon.
Vaccinations will continue through the summer holidays, Bukholm said, adding that he hopes everyone will nonetheless accept the vaccination appointments they’re offered. He and other state officials were disappointed when some Norwegians declined vaccinations this week because they had other plans during the Easter holidays, even at a time when Corona infection keeps rising. FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) has factored resumed use of the AstraZeneca vaccine into its program calculations. The current suspension of AstraZeneca following serious side-effects in some of those injected with it is expected to last for five weeks. Even if that’s extended, Bukholm doesn’t expect it will delay the program by more than a few weeks.
***Public health institute FHI has complained that several international airlines are hindering their efforts to track infection among passengers on board the same flights. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that the airlines include Wizz Air, Delta Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Pegasus. FHI filed an official report of concern with the state health directorate, in which FHI wrote that most airlines are helpful and willing to help FHI track down passengers who may have been exposed to Corona infectin. “Unfortunately there are some who never reply to our inquiries or reply much too late,” FHI’s complaint read.
***State airports operator Avinor reported that a total of 8,663 people flew to international destinations from Norwegian airports during the weekend, even though they face hotel quarantine upon return at their own expense. Most still wanted to take advantage of Norway’s long five-day Easter holiday that officially begins on Thursday. Many took off early, including a couple in their 70s who were heading, they told state broadcaster NRK, as usual to the Canary Islands for sunshine and warmth. They didn’t want to be interviewed on camera, though, by NRK, which had a reporting crew Norway’s main gateway airport OSL Gardermoen as the holiday week began. Others interviewed had moved to Norway from abroad and wanted to fly back to their homelands to visit family.
This week also marks a major holiday- or pre-holiday period for many Norwegians from the Middle East. The Persian New Year Nowrus was celebrated last weekend and soon comes Muslims’ fasting period of Ramadan, with its Id celebrations on May 12. In Norway, all mosques, churches and other places of worship are either closed or services have been cancelled. Others checking in for flights were tempted by low airfares, including one man from Poland who works in Norway and said he hadn’t seen his children since last fall. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that others feel pressure from family abroad to return home to visit elderly parents, for example.
All such travel is likely to be considered “unnecessary” by Norwegian authorities and therefore subject to mandatory Corona testing and strict quarantine regulations when they land back in Norway. That’s because of the high risk of more imported infection: A recent survey by the state health directorate, for example, showed that 12 percent of all passengers landing in Norway from Pakistan tested positive to the Corona virus. State airports operator Avinor noted that around 2,000 people flew to Poland, around 1,000 to Germany and around 1,000 to the Netherlands. An estimated 500 flew to Spain, with Avinor noting that total airline passenger traffic was down 96 percent from Easter of 2019, the last such holiday period before the Corona crisis began.
***A large annual gathering of partying high school graduates known as russ has been cancelled. More than 15,000 had already bought tickets for Landstreff Stavanger, traditionally held in the amusement park Kongeparken, and organizers claimed in a press release Monday (March 29) that they had kept hoping they could hold the huge event. The Corona situation and its associated restrictions made that impossible, they claimed. It’s the second year in a row that the annual russ event has been cancelled because of the pandemic. All who have purchased tickets are eligible for refunds.
***Lørenskog, located northeast of Oslo, has now registered the highest infection rate in the country, according to new numbers from public health institute FHI: 890 infected per 100,000 residents during the past two weeks. Haugesund on Norway’s west coast came in second, with 859.3 infected during the same period. There’s also still a high rate of infection in Drammen and there’s been another death at the hospital in Østfold.
***Authorities are opening an investigation into an unusually high rate of infection and death at the Stabæktunet nursing home in Bærum, reports local newspaper Budstikka. It started with an outbreak that left 36 elderly residents infected, and 10 later died from Covid-19.
***Norway will maintain its suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine until at least April 15. Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the state public health institute FHI, said Friday that she and her colleagues need more time to examine reports on possible side-effects of the vaccine, some of them serious and even fatal. FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 11, after six Norwegians who’d been injected with it developed blood clots and internal hemorrhaging. Four have since died, and doctors treating three of them at the national hospital in Oslo reported they’d found a link between the vaccine and what made them so sick. All were under age 55. Stoltenberg said she and her colleagues want to further probe use and worrisome side-effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine and others in various age groups.
The suspension has slowed the tempo of the entire national vaccination program that FHI administers, because of a lack of other vaccines to replace it. If AstraZeneca is once again offered, she added, it probably will also be reserved for older age groups.
***Fully 10 percent of all Norwegian diplomats stationed abroad have been infected by the Corona virus. Norway’s foreign ministry confirmed the number to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week, which compares to just 1.5 percent of residents of Norway being infected. Some of the Norwegian diplomats have also been evacuated from their posts and brought home to Norway in order to receive medical treatment, according to ministry spokesperson Trude Måseide. The situation has been demanding, because many of the diplomats are living and working in countries with high infection rates, and with poorly developed health care systems. That’s now prompted Norwegian officials to allow diplomats and their families to travel home to Norway to be vaccinated if they can’t get vaccinated where they’re stationed.
Some diplomats, though, are stationed in countries with a higher vaccination tempo than Norway. “I came from the US to Israel in September last year, and it was a big difference,” veteran Norwegian diplomat Kåre Aas told DN. He was Norway’s ambassador to the US for several years and now holds the same post in Tel Aviv, where diplomats were included in the country’s massive vaccination program: “In the course of three months they (the Israelis) have vaccinated 5.3 million of the population of roughtly 9 million,” Aas told DN. He was fully vaccinated in January, adding that “it was really a privilege to be included in their national vaccination campaign.”
***Another Norwegian municipality is cracking down on the mobility of its residents. Østre Toten in Innland County wants everyone to stay home through the Easter holidays because of an increase in Corona virus infection, especially the British mutation. The new measures will continue through the Sunday after Easter. “We’re not so far from Viken County and Oslo, where infection is high,” Mayor Bror Helgestad told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. Local infection is also already worrisome, with around 400 residents currently in quarantine.
The new rules may ruin Easter holidays for many who’d planned to head for the nearby mountains. Østre Toten now requires use of face masks and wants to halt all travel outside of the municipalities borders until at least April 11. Several others areas are also tightening their rules ahead of the Easter holidays, in the hopes they won’t lead to more infection. The popular skiing destination of Trysil doesn’t want anyone to have more than five guests at their holiday homes (hytter), and if they’re coming from Oslo or Viken, only two are allowed. Nord-Aurdal, another popular hytte community in Valdres, is also limiting visitors and only wants one person from each hytte to shop at local grocery stores, with a face mask.
***Finally some good news on the Corona front: For the fifth day in a row, the city of Trondheim hasn’t registered a single new case of the Corona virus. At a time when the rest of the country is seeing rising infection, Norway’s third-largest city with around 200,000 residents seems to buck the trend. “I can hardly believe our numbers, given so much infection elsewhere in the country,” Dr Tove Røsstad, chief medical officer for Trondheim, told state broadcaster NRK. “It’s very nice, but we know this can still turn around.” She’s hoping the locals will continue to be good about avoiding any travel, testing themselves at the slightest suspicion of infection and following measures to stop the spread.
***Norway’s tough Corona restrictions seem to be working, given a slight reduction in reports of new cases and an infection curve that’s starting to flatten out. Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health directorate, however, said the overall picture is mixed. “It looks like infection numbers are flattening out in some areas, but in other areas, they’re rising,” Nakstad told state broadcaster NRK on Monday. The reductions, meanwhile, aren’t enough to prompt health authorities and the government to ease restrictions early. Most now in place are expected to remain in force until mid-April, after the Easter holidays.
Rules may also toughen further, Nakstad warned, with social distancing going from a recommended two meters to a mandatory two meters. Until now, the rules call for Norwegians to remain at least a meter apart from those not living in their own households. Infection rates remain high in Oslo and the surrounding Viken County. They’ve also risen sharply in Ålesund on the northwest coast, prompting a lockdown from Monday. Schools were closing in Tønsberg for everyone in the fifth to 10th grades, with instruction to be conducted digitally instead. Many areas now require face masks for everyone older than 12.
***Police in Geilo have started investigating whether Prime Minister Erna Solberg and/or family members violated her government’s own Corona virus containment measures, when marking her 60th birthay last month. Solberg and family members spent a weekend in the mountain town, and Solberg herself has later admitted that too many of her family members were present in the same room. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) broke the news Thursday night about Solberg’s alleged transgressions. She ended up having to forego a dinner in her honour at a Geilo restaurant because of an eye infection that demanded emergency treatment in Oslo, but 13 family members attended, three more than allowed under both state and local rules. She returned to Geilo in time for take-away sushi in the holiday apartment her family had rented, but that led to another case of too many family members being present: 14.
Solberg has apologized profusely, just like a deputy leader of the Labour Party had to after he and other Labour politicians partied in Bodø last weekend. They were let off the hook because of differences between state and local rules. Solberg and her family, meanwhile, face fines of NOK 10,000 each and NOK 20,000 for whoever is determined to have arranged the two dinner, probably either Solberg or her husband, Sindre Finnes.
***Health authorities fear the number of Corona virus patients needing intensive care will triple over the next four weeks at hospitals in southeastern Norway. That would put “an extreme burden” on health care staff, claims the head of Norway’s nurses’ union, Lill Sverresdatter Larsen. “Nurses are used to swings in demand,” Larsen told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday, “but when there already has been such a huge burden over such a long time, this is very worrisome.” Cathrine Lofthus, chief executive of the state’s regional health care agency Helse Sør-Øst, was also worried about the prognosis from the state public health institute FHI. The main problem now is the rapid spread of the British mutation of the Corona virus, she said, noting that it’s behind 90 percent of current hospitalizations.
Hospitals in the southeast had 195 Corona patients admitted as of Thursday (March 18), 52 of them in the intensive care unit and 34 of them on respirators. Local hospitals have begun postponing non-critical operations to make room for more patients in Oslo, Bærum, Lørenskog, Vestfold and Sarpsborg.
***Norway’s third infection wave was crashing over the country this week, as the highest numbers of confirmed virus cases ever rolled in. A total of 1,156 cases were registered in a 24-hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday, with areas like Haugalandet on the West Coast now being hit hard. “These are high and disturbing numbers,” Jarle Nilsen, the mayor of Karmøy, told state broadcaster NRK. Fully half of all cases in neighbouring Haugesund now involve children and youth. In Oslo, the number of new confirmed cases hit 495 in just a 24-hour period. That’s 214 more than on Wednesday last week. Numbers were also high in Drammen, Bergen and Tønsberg.
Trondheim, however, could report its best news in weeks: Not a single case was registered from Tuesday to Wednesday, a huge improvement from outbreaks earlier this winter. Several other communities around the country also remain infection-free, but health authorities were still considering even tougher national containment measures. None were rolled out on Wednesday, and Norwegians will still be allowed to travel to their holiday homes (hytter) during the Easter holidays.
***There’s been another big increase in Corona cases in the northern city of Bodø, prompting even tighter rules that are likely to remain in force until well after the Easter holidays. The South African mutation of the Corona virus is behind most of the confirmed cases, leaving 52 people in isolation and 250 in quarantine. Many of those infected are young, and both high schools in Bodø have been closed.
***Norway has entered its third wave of Corona infection, confirms assistant state health director Dr Espen Nakstad. Several more outbreaks were registered on Tuesday, including cases of the new Brazilian mutation in Vestby, just south of Oslo. Some hospitals have had to postpone scheduled operations because of infection concerns and staff in quarantine. Newspaper VG reported that four patients and five employees at the Lovisenberg hospital in Oslo have tested positive for Covid-19. Another 70 employees had to go into quarantine, prompting the hospital to halt all new admissions to the geriatric, stroke and cardiac wards. Bærum Sykehus, just west of Oslo, was also poised to do the same as it moved to a higher level of preparedness after Bærum registered record-high infection with 68 new cases overnight.
In Tønsberg, around 25 scheduled operations have been postponed because of a jump in admissions of Corona patients. A professor at the University of Oslo warned that the recent rise in Corona infection will likely result in more admissions over the next few weeks, putting more pressure on hospitals, especially those in Oslo and Viken County, now under strict Corona containment measures. The mayor of Haugesund, where infection has also risen, was calling on the government to put the entire country under lockdown again. “Oslo, Viken, Nordland and parts of Rogaland and Vestland have imposed the strictest measures,” Mayor Arne-Christian Mohn of the Labour Party told state broadcaster NRK Tuesday afternoon. “Then the question is whether they should also be imposed nationwide. We see that the virus mutations are much more aggressive, hospitalizations are rising and we risk losing control if we don’t crack down.”
***Hair salons in the northern city of Bodø were ordered to close on Tuesday, after the city registered another 180 cases of the Corona virus. That makes Bodø, which also has experienced a sharp rise in Corona infection recently, the first city in Norway to resume salon closures since the first wave of infection in early 2020. State health officials and the government haven’t viewed such “one-to-one” services as high-risk sources of infection, but Bodø officials included salons, barbershops, tattoo studios and other such non-medical services in a new shutdown aimed at halting the current spread.
***Another vaccinated health care worker died during the weekend. She was one of three health care workers admitted to the national hospital (Rikshospitalet) in Oslo after all suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. The state drug administration is investigating, since all three health care workers had received the AstraZeneca vaccine. “They took the vaccine at around the same time,” Dr Pål Andre Holme told reporters at a press meeting on Monday. The health care worker who died was described as “a young woman,” under the age of 50, who worked at the hospital in Lillehammer. She had no other underlying illnesses, according to Dr Trine Kåsine of the National Hospital’s intensive care ward.
“She was vaccinated a week before she was admitted (to the hospital),” Kåsine said. “She received treatment through the weekend, but we couldn’t save her life. She died on Sunday.” Kåsine described her cerebral hemmorhage as creating “a great catastrophe in her brain that we couldn’t repair.”
A health care worker in her 30s from Tynset also died last week from a blood clot after being vaccinated with AstraZeneca (see below). All recent cases involving cerebral hemmorhages and blood clots in Norway are under examination for any ties to the vaccine, use of which has been suspended (see below).
***The Brazilian strain of the Corona virus has been confirmed in Norway for the first time. Three cases of the highly contagious mutation have been registered in the western industrial mountain town of Årdal, but local officials claim they have “good control.” Infection from the Brazilian strain was confirmed in the laboratory at Western Norway’s largest hospital, Haukeland University Hospital, during routine screening of positive Corona virus test results. State broadcaster NRK reported that the person involved had traveled from Brazil and tested positive upon arrival at Norway’s gateway airport OSL Gardermoen before later traveling on to Årdal.
***Norway’s state drug administration (Legemiddelverket) is investigating the death of a Norwegian woman who died not long after being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Norway has suspended its use following reports of some potentially serious side-effects (see below). Public health institute FHI has not concluded there’s any connection between the death of the woman, a health care worker in her 30s who lives in Tynset in Innland County, and the vaccine. Her case, however, “will be thoroughly evaluated,” wrote FHI in a press release Friday.
***Norway is now due to receive far fewer doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, reported newspaper VG Thursday evening. Only around 670,000 doses are now expected to arrive in Norway during the second quarter, a million fewer than the state public health institute FHI had expected before they suspended use of the vaccine because of health concerns. “That’s about a 60 percent reduction in the second quarter,” Knut Jønsrud of FHI told VG. He and his colleagues had expected delivery of as many as 1.67 million doses during April, May and June. Use of the AstraZeneca doses already in Norway, however, was put on hold Thursday pending a probe of reports from Denmark about possible fatal side-effects. “We’re doing this to see whether there’s any connection between AstraZeneca vaccinations and blood clots.”
Denmark has also suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was recently approved for people age 65 and over in Norway. The suspension will delay Norway’s vaccination program. On a more positive note, the EU approved use of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meaning it will likely be made available in Norway as well. Despite complaints from opposition parties in Parliament, state broadcaster NRK reported that Norway’s vaccination program has been progressing at a rate that ranks it fifth in the world (behind only Israel, Great Britain, the US and Denmark) in terms of the percentage of countries’ populations that are now vaccinated. Norway had vaccinated 10 percent of its population as of this week.
***A proposed compensation program for foreign workers aims to help those who haven’t been able to travel to their jobs in Norway. It will provide at least some compensation for lost income from January 29, when the government closed Norway’s borders. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she’d already informed her Swedish counterpart, Stefan Löfven, about the program since Swedish workers in Norway have been hit the hardest. It will still need approval from opposition parties, but Solberg called the program “a solution” to problems facing foreign workers when she addressed Parliament on the Corona situation this week. It will apply to all workers who live in the European Economic Area but commute to jobs in Norway. The government’s proposal, to be administered through state welfare agency NAV, will compensate foreign workers for 70 percent of their wages up to a maximum of NOK 600,000.
Only the conservative Progress Party, a former member of Solberg’s government coalition, has publicly opposed the program so far. “We believe Norwegian welfare benefits should go to Norwegian citizens and others who live and work in Norway,” claimed Progress politician Erlend Wiborg. “The government’s compensation program will go to people living in Romania, Poland, Latvia, Sverige etc. It’s not Norwegian taxpayers’ job to finance this. It’s up to Poland, Sweden, Romania and other European countries to take care of their own citizens.” Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen rejected Progress’ criticism, noting that many foreign workers in Norway already have earned rights to sick pay and other Norwegian welfare benefits. Given the rising infection numbers in Norway, the borders may also remain closed for a long time.
***A proposed compensation system for foreign workers aims to help those who haven’t been able to travel to their jobs in Norway. It will provide at least some compensation for lost income from January 29, when the government closed Norway’s borders. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she’d already informed her Swedish counterpart, Stefan Löfven, about the program since Swedish workers in Norway have been hit the hardest. It will still need approval from opposition parties, but Solberg called the program “a solution” to problems facing foreign workers when she addressed Parliament on the Corona situation this week. It will apply to all workers who live in the European Economic Area but commute to jobs in Norway. The government’s proposal, to be administered through state welfare agency NAV, will compensate foreign workers for 70 percent of their wages up to a maximum of NOK 600,000.
Only the conservative Progress Party, a former member of Solberg’s government coalition, has publicly opposed the program so far. “We believe Norwegian welfare benefits should go to Norwegian citizens and others who live and work in Norway,” claimed Progress politician Erlend Wiborg. “The government’s compensation program will go to people living in Romania, Poland, Latvia, Sverige etc. It’s not Norwegian taxpayers’ job to finance this. It’s up to Poland, Sweden, Romania and other European countries to take care of their own citizens.” Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen rejected Progress’ criticism, noting that many foreign workers in Norway already have earned rights to sick pay and other Norwegian welfare benefits. Given the rising infection numbers in Norway, the borders may also remain closed for a long time.
***A proposed compensation system for foreign workers aims to help those who haven’t been able to travel to their jobs in Norway. It will provide at least some compensation for lost income from January 29, when the government closed Norway’s borders. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she’d already informed her Swedish counterpart, Stefan Löfven, about the program since Swedish workers in Norway have been hit the hardest. It will still need approval from opposition parties, but Solberg called the program “a solution” to problems facing foreign workers when she addressed Parliament on the Corona situation this week. It will apply to all workers who live in the European Economic Area but commute to jobs in Norway. The government’s proposal, to be administered through state welfare agency NAV, will compensate foreign workers for 70 percent of their wages up to a maximum of NOK 600,000.
Only the conservative Progress Party, a former member of Solberg’s government coalition, has publicly opposed the program so far. “We believe Norwegian welfare benefits should go to Norwegian citizens and others who live and work in Norway,” claimed Progress politician Erlend Wiborg. “The government’s compensation program will go to people living in Romania, Poland, Latvia, Sverige etc. It’s not Norwegian taxpayers’ job to finance this. It’s up to Poland, Sweden, Romania and other European countries to take care of their own citizens.” Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen rejected Progress’ criticism, noting that many foreign workers in Norway already have earned rights to sick pay and other Norwegian welfare benefits. Given the rising infection numbers in Norway, the borders may also remain closed for a long time.
***Norwegian health officials are planning to lengthen the interval between vaccination shots, in order to enable more people to get their first shot. They’re also set to recommend the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over age 65. Norway’s current vaccination program using the Pfizer/Biontech and Moderna vaccine has involved a second booster shot within two weeks of the first shot. That interval will now be extended to between three and six weeks, freeing up available vaccine so more people can get their initial shot and thus be better protected from infection. Norway expects to soon receive more than 2 million doses of additional vaccine, which can then be used for both booster shots and initial shots for more people.
State public health institute FHI is also now evaluating the AstraZeneca vaccine to Norwegians older than 65. New studies are showing that it’s been more effective than first thought for seniors, and can also allow many more Norwegians to be vaccinated sooner than expected. While Prime Minister Erna Solberg stated in an address to Parliament Tuesday that AstraZeneca “will now be recommended,” however, FHI’s director in infection prevention Dr Geir Bukholm told newspaper VG that “we’re evaluating it, we haven’t concluded yet.”
***Immigrant communities in Norway continue to have among the highest Corona virus infection rates, and are thus due to be allotted more doses of vaccine. Large families and a tradition of several generations living together have put them at a much higher risk of infection. Newspaper Aftenposten reported how the Oslo neighbourhoods of Stovner and Søndre Nordstrand have had more residents hospitalized than all of Northern Norway, Trøndelag and Møre og Romsdal combined. Nearly 30 percent of all Corona patients aged 45 to 75 come from six neighbourhoods in Oslo and four municipalities in Viken County: Lørenskog, Sarpsborg, Fredrikstad and Moss.
The seven hardest-hit neighbourhoods in Oslo alone accounted for around 20 percent of all Corona patients in the country, according to statistics compiled by the public health institute FHI and the City of Oslo. Oslo-area hospitals are currently filling up with Corona virus patients once again. It’s being linked to all the elderly immigrants living with their children and grandchildren, who are out working or at school. Someone in the family unwittingly comes home with the virus and soon many family members are infected, just like when Norwegians who’d been skiing in the Alps last winter brought the virus back with them, and then passed it on to others, “like the taxi drivers taking them home from the airport,” said Oslo city government leader Raymond Johansen. Norwegian students living in collective housing and workers from abroad living in company housing are also at risk. Now they’re due for more systematic testing and vaccinations, as attempts to control the spread of the virus move forward.
***Prime Minister Erna Solberg addressed the nation again Sunday evening, apparently feeling a need to rally public support for new and even tougher national anti-infection measures. Her government is expected to issue the new Corona containment measures this week. Solberg’s address was meant to mark the upcoming one-year anniversary of when the Corona crisis officially began in Norway, and her government shut down the nation. She said she understands that everyone is tired of ongoing restrictions on personal freedom, but stressed that “we still have a ways to go” until restrictions can be lifted.
“Infection is rising again,” Solberg said, adding that “the British mutation is taking over. That’s why we’re not finished with strict measures just yet.” She expressed gratitude for Norwegian solidarity during the crisis: “We are together in this and we stand best together. We will come out of this together.”
*** The need for intensive care exceeded capacity at a major Oslo-area hospital this week, forcing the transfers of several patients to other university hospitals. Staffing shortages worry hospital officials, as infection keeps rising in the Norwegian capital and extended shutdowns loom (see below). Corona patients continue to stream into the Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) in Lørenskog, with many needing intensive care. There’s no shortage of beds or respirators, but there are not enough intensive care nurses to tend to patients who are critically ill. The staffing shortage is especially acute during the weekends.
Nursing representatives complain of an overall lack of nurses (called sykepleiere in Norwegian) being educated in Norway. Corona-related travel restrictions and border closures have also disrupted the entry of nurses from Sweden and Denmark. The situation is so critical that some medical professionals are now urging a national shutdown for the two weeks before the upcoming Easter holiday week and two weeks afterwards. They don’t think current regional shutdowns in Oslo, Kristiansand, Bodø and some other Norwegian cities are enough to halt the spread of the Corona virus and its new contagious strains.
***New national Corona restrictions loom in the coming week, warned Health Minister Bent Høie on Thursday (March 4). The goal is still to reduce the spread of the Corona virus, specifically bringing the so-called “R-factor” that measures the spread down below 1. “We must gain control over infection through March and April, in order to be able to start having more normal everyday life,” Høie told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He said Norway’s R-factor is now 1.3, meaning that infection is still spreading “very quickly.” If that spread continues, Høie warned, “it will have dramatic consequences for many people who can become seriously ill and land in the hospital. Our health care services will then be over-burdened.”
Other state health officials and medical professionals have also pointed to the importance of reducing infection over the next two months. Dr Espen Nakstad of the public health institute FHI said earlier in the day that he doesn’t think Norway will “get back to normal” until the summer, and then only if Corona containment measures remain in effect through the spring. Høie stressed the importance of local restrictions, saying he was impressed by how Oslo has cracked down after more outbreaks, as have cities like Kristiansand and Tromsø. Many of Oslo’s neighbouring communities including Lillestrøm, Lørenskog and Nittedal have followed up with their own measures that include closing stores and restaurants and discouraging guests at home, while Bærum is allowing them to remain open but demanding patrons to register their addresses. Only people actually living in Bærum, for example, can use exercise studios or get a beer.
***Norway’s national vaccination program is due to pick up with the pending arrival of around 2 million doses in March and April. That’s greatly cheered state and local health officials around the country who’ve been all set up for mass vaccinations but lacked vaccine. After only receiving 372,000 doses in February, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg is more optimistic about the tempo of vaccination programs this spring. She expects far more reliable shipments of both the Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccine, and Norway also may start getting other vaccines through its agreement with the EU. That may include the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine, acquisition of which has already been urged by officials in Finnmark where Norway shares a border with Russia and wants to work with its northerly neighbours.
***Oslo plans to start mass-testing high school students next week, in yet another effort to stop the spread of the Corona virus in the capital. Schools in areas with the highest levels of infection (Groruddalen, Søndre Nordstrand and Gamle Oslo) will be tested first. School officials plan to use several testing methods including spit tests, nose tests and a combination. Testing won’t be mandatory, but highly encouraged. Recent studies have shown that the highest level of infection in Oslo is now occurring in the age group 10-19. The entire city was forced into a new social shutdown this week, after some of the highest numbers of confirmed Corona cases since the crisis began, made worse by more cases of highly contagious new strains of the virus.
***The mayor of Norway’s central city of Molde remained under fire Tuesday after he spent the weekend criticizing Oslo’s failure to halt Corona virus infection. By Monday he was even being scolded by his own Conservative Party’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who called his criticism an “unnecessary contribution to the Corona debate,” only to later find out that her own top adviser was involved.
Molde Mayor Torgeir Dahl was still trying hard to fend off a social media storm of outrage, and claimed he had no regrets for stating that he was “unimpressed” over how Oslo’s city government, led by the Labour Party, “never gets control over infection” that can then be “planted out in the country.” That was interpreted as an attempt to pit Norway’s biggest urban area against rural districts, and it backfired badly. Instead of gaining support from others outside Oslo, the vast majority rallied to support the capital and its population, which has lived under the strictest Corona containment measures in the country. On Sunday evening, city leaders even had to tighten them again with a new social shutdown due to last at least until mid-March.
Oslo’s government leader Raymond Johansen called Dahl’s remarks a “distasteful attack” on the people of Oslo. Solberg added her support for Oslo, too: “I know that many people all over the country are tired of Corona measures,” she wrote on social media. “We all have to contribute and there’s no doubt Oslo has had a tougher time than others. The new measures imposed Sunday have my support and the government’s.” She added that Norwegians have to “stand together in this, and get out of it together.” After finding out that her state secretary had helped Dahl get national newspaper coverage for his tirade against Oslo, his future seem in jeopardy, too.
***Oslo residents who’ve been away on winter holidays elsewhere in the country are being asked to test themselves for Covid-19 after returning home. City government officials struggling to control rising Corona infection don’t want even more of it to be imported from other regions. The daily average of confirmed Covid-19 cases has jumped from 64 to 99 just in the past two weeks. Robert Steen, Oslo’s top politician in charge of health issues, pointed to some Corona outbreaks at mountain lodges last week and how mobility in itself contributes to the spread of the virus.
***Public health officials are now most worried about the infection situations in Oslo and Kristiansand, the southern city where every fourth confirmed case can’t be traced to its source of infection. Fully 414 people were infected in Kristiansand in February. “We underestimated the situation in Kristiansand and don’t see any clear signs that it’s turning around,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of the state public health institute FHI told state broadcaster NRK. Residents can expect much stricter Corona containment measures including bans on all public gatherings except funerals, closure of all bars, restaurants and exercise studios and digital instead of classroom instruction at local high schools among other restrictions.
***Norwegian researchers are looking into whether many Norwegians’ traditional habit of imbibing a daily dose of cod liver oil (called tran) has spared them Corona infection. Medical professionals have already noted that fewer or those who take tran daily have been infected by the virus, and if they are infected, they don’t get as sick as others who don’t take tran. Now Dr Arne Søraas and his colleagues at Oslo University Hospital are seeking many more people to take part in their research by taking tran or a placebo. Around 30,000 have already signed up but 70,000 participants are needed in the study.
***Children in Norway may have to start wearing face masks at school, reported radio station P4 on Friday. That’s because the new strains of the Corona virus that are rapidly spreading around Norway infect all age groups much more easily, also children and youth. State health officials are thus evaluating whether they’ll recommend stricter anti-infection rules for schools. “We now unfortunately see an increase in the infection situation many places around Norway,” state health director Dr Bjørn Guldvog told P4 and later state broadcaster NRK. “One of several measures could be use of face masks at school among teachers and the oldest students in areas with lots of infection.” The standard rule of staying at least a meter apart may also be doubled, to two meters, Guldvog said. Testing and infection tracking must also be strengthened.
***Vaccination programs are critical for bringing about an end to the Corona crisis, but they’ve also prompted some complaints. Oslo’s highly digitalized registration process has been branded as far too difficult for many elderly citizens to understand. Norwegian authorities’ tendency to force digitalization upon the public can often seem to go too far. In Oslo, it’s frustrated many in the age group between 75 and 84 who are now being encouraged to sign up for their Covid-19 vaccinations. They find it challenging to follow or even see links on their mobile phones, tap in multi-step security codes, set up new pin codes and answer lots of personal questions in order to get their shots.
“I made several efforts but had to give up,” 82-year-old Kristen Knudsen told newspaper Aftenposten. “The instructions for what I had to do were very poor.” He’s otherwise fairly comfortable with online solutions but found himself overwhelmed by all the verification codes and pin codes needed to book a vaccination appointment. City officials in charge of Oslo’s program responded that everyone unable to deal with the digitalized system will be contacted by telephone, letter or other means to make sure that those who want to be vaccinated will be.
***Norway’s southern city of Kristiansand was suddenly imposing strict new Corona infection control measures this week. Health officials warned the virus was spreading through the southern region known as Sørlandet, just as winter holidays were beginning. The city responded by halting the sale and serving of alcoholic drinks and closing gyms, on the advice of state public health institute FHI. “Everyone can see that this is now serious,” said Kristiansand Mayor Jan Oddvar Skisland of the Labour Party. Other restrictions included closures of public swimming pools, bowling alleys, amusement parks and other gathering places, while restaurants were asked to register all guests so that they could be contacted later if necessary.
A total of 315 residents of Kristiansand have been infected with the Corona virus so far this month. Outbreaks have occurred among various groups and the situation was described as “highly unstable.” Neighbouring municipalities were also considering new shutdowns and other restrictions.
***Oslo will be organizing mass testing for the Corona virus at various workplaces in the Norwegian capital. City health officials are targeting construction sites, exercise studios and other venues in an effort to be able to ease restrictions if low infection rates are found. City officials can’t force employees to undergo testing, however, but expect most will. Thousands of Oslo residents complied with recommendations that they test themselves before leaving town for this week’s winter holidays. The goal is to identify sources of infection and crack down on it before it spreads, especially cases of new strains of the virus. State health officials announced Monday that a total of 747 cases of the British strain have been confirmed in Norway plus 74 of the South African strain. Fully half of the South African strain were found in Western Norway and 23 in Nordland County.
Testing at workplaces began on Friday among construction workers building new pools at the Oset water treatment plant at the southern end of the lake Maridalsvatnet. There have been several outbreaks of Covid-19 at construction sites in Oslo since the Christmas and New Year holidays.
***The new strains of the Corona virus being found in Norway may make March and April the “most difficult” months of the entire pandemic, Dr Espen Nakstad warned on Friday. His warning came as state officials announced they were keeping most of the current national restrictions in force, with the exception of some easing of rules for children and youth in areas where infection is low. Nakstad said the various mutations of the virus can make it difficult to keep schools and day care centers open, though, because they seem to spread more quickly among children.
“The next two months will be very difficult in Norway because we have an increase of the more contagious virus strains and infection levels that are rising again,” Nakstad said at the government’s press conference Friday afternoon. He said state health officials were closely following developments in Sweden and Denmark, where mutant virus infection is now rising quickly. Officials in Oslo are also worried about another wave of infection after next week’s winter holidays. There already have been examples of how entire classes of children can be infected. A large day care center in Oslo, Margarinfabrikken, was closed this week.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg confirmed this “is not the the time” to ease restrictions too much, but local communities will be allowed from next Tuesday (Feb 23) to determine whether their local colleges, universities and professional schools can reopen for instruction. Children and youth can also be allowed compete in organized sports, with up to 50 people present at indoor events and 200 present outdoors, but that includes all athletes, coaches, staff and parents. Strict border control remains in place.
***The southern coastal city of Kristiansand was reporting record high infection levels on Friday, with 24 new registered cases and the mayor calling for everyone to use face masks. Kristiansand now has the highest rate of new infection in the country, according to chief medical officer Dr Priscilla Hilton, with “many unknown sources of infection.” Mayor Jan Oddvar Skisland appealed to local residents on Friday that “this is serious. We must halt the spread of infection.” Nearly 200 residents have been infected in the past two weeks.
***Fully vaccinated Norwegian still can’t live as they used to before the Corona pandemic began, warns Norway’s public health institute FHI. Dr Preben Aavitsland said those vaccinated are protected against the illness, but they can still infect others who aren’t vaccinated yet. “Everyone has to realize that they can still infect other people,” Aavitsland told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. “They must therefore follow the same rules as everyone else when they’re out in the public.” Those who have had both vaccinations should, for example, continue to wear face masks. Recovering cancer patient Anne Grethe Solbakken of Trondheim said that’s fine with her. She still follows a strict infection protection regime because her cancer treatments lowered her immune system. “Especially now, when there are the new mutant strains of the virus out there, I’m still anxious about infection,” Solbakken told NRK.
***A new strain of the Corona virus has been discovered in Norway that’s similar to both the British and South African strains. It can be more contagious than Covid-19 and has been called B.1.525. Around 30 cases of the same strain have also been found in Denmark and Great Britain. Public health institute FHI said around 10 cases had been found in Norway since Wednesday, and it’s also cropped up in the US.
***Oslo officials are only slightly easing their strict Corona containment measures. City government leader Raymond Johansen warned against any “re-opening” too quickly, thus taking only a careful few steps out of the social shutdown imposed in January. Children and youth will be able to resume participation in organized sports and free-time activities. Organized athletic or exercise programs for adults can also resume, but only outdoors and only in groups of no more than 10 people. High schools were also allowed to reopen earlier this week, while universities could reopen their libraries and study rooms.
All other restrictions will continue for at least another two weeks, including closure of all shopping centers and a ban on serving alcohol in bars or restaurants. Business organizations were disappointed, especially over the ongoing closure of shopping centers. Johansen claimed, however, that allowing such public gathering places to reopen too quickly could have “very, very serious” consequences, such as new spikes in Corona virus infection.
***”It’s the beginning of the end” of the Corona crisis, according to the head of Norway’s public health institute FHI, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg. She confirmed on national radio Wednesday morning that infection rates have declined markedly in recent weeks, while more and more people worldwide are getting vaccinated. Stoltenberg, who’s been part of the group of health care professionals and government officials in charge of Norway’s Corona containment measures, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) early Wednesday morning that trends show “the beginning of the end” of the crisis that’s gripped the globe for the past year. She stressed, however, that the situation can still change again quickly, not least because of the new strains of the virus that have been appearing. She urged everyone to remain vigilant with social distancing and other infection prevention measures that already have left Norway with among the lowest infection levels in Europe and also the world.
FHI’s head of infection control, meanwhile, said the institute is now revising its vaccine strategy and that risk evaluations of the new strains will play an important role. “We have started a process of going through our strategy,” Geir Bukholm said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, while acknowleding that some cities with high infection levels want more vaccine than currently alloted. “We are always stressing the most efficient means of distributing our vaccines.” Stoltenberg conceded that Norway’s vaccination program has proceeded more slowly than expected, “but that’s because we haven’t received as much vaccine as expected.”
***Health Minister Bent Høie eased state-mandated emergency restrictions in Oslo and many other surrounding municipalities on Tuesday, allowing them to return to imposing their own local Corona containment measures as they see fit. Infection levels are back under control and the need for overriding state restrictions was no longer deemed necessary. Høie said the state public health institute FHI had evaluated the situation in both Oslo and Viken counties “and now has a better overview of the infection situation and better capacity for testing, tracking infection and quarantine.” Uniform measures in all the various municipalities can thus be lifted from Thursday.
That means shopping centers, schools, libraries, colleges and universities can reopen if the municipalities where they’re located think that’s safe. Exercise studios may also be able to reopen and restaurants may even be able to serve alcoholic beverages. Oslo, Halden and Sarpsborg have had the highest levels of infection, with their new restriction levels expected to be announced later this week. The state restrictions were first imposed after new strains of the Corona virus were detected in Nordre Follo, just south of Oslo. The restrictions were later expanded to most of southeastern Norway.
***Norway’s most popular Corona expert, Dr Espen Nakstad of the public health institute FHI, says he hopes for “a more normal summer” this year but still fears a third wave of infection. He’s urging ongoing vigilance and respect for Corona containment measures. “If many people think the danger is over and stop paying attention to infection prevention advice before they’re vaccinated,” Nakstad warned, “we can risk a third wave of infection that will lead to more illness and hospitalizations in age groups not yet vaccinated.” He told news bureau NTB that only real turning point in the Corona crisis will come when the entire population is fully vaccinated. That’s not expected until late summer at the earliest.
***Oslo residents are being asked to test themselves for Corona infection before they leave the city for winter holidays out of town next week. Robert Steen, the city’s top politician in charge of health issues, also stressed that those heading for the mountains or other holiday destinations should continue to follow their hometown’s rules when away as well. “We have seen that holiday periods have a tendency to lead to a rise in infection afterwards,” Steen told NRK. Schools are closed around the country either in the week beginning February 22 or March 1, and that’s when families traditionally take off for winter holidays.
***Norwegians can travel to their holiday homes during the upcoming winter holiday weeks, as long as their hytter are in Norway. Restrictions are in place, however, with everyone urged to do their shopping at home, avoid social gathering spots at ski resorts and travel only with those in their own households. “The one-meter rule also applies at the hytte,” said Health Minister Bent Høie. “Travel with those you live with and without contact with others.” He noted that “you can gladly visit one another outdoors,” just not indoors. Høie also noted that everyone should continue to follow restrictions issued by their home areas, also while at their hytter in different areas. “If you’re not supposed to go to shopping centers where you live, you shouldn’t go to a shopping center while on winter holiday.” The goal is to avoid meeting too many other people. He also noted that all ski centers will have strict Corona containment measures in place that must be followed. Low infection rates so far have meant that ski resports in Norway haven’t had to close like they have in other countries.
***Several hundred people in Haugesund were ordered to be tested after discovery of the British strain of the Corona virus at the Aibel offshore yard, just over a bridge from downtown. Local health officials are alarmed and evaluating a new wave of restrictions. The contagious British strain was confirmed in a worker at the Aibel yard who’s now in isolation. The infection source was unclear and all the worker’s close contacts were in quarantine. Haugesund officials were responding with mass testing: “Since the infection source is unknown, we need to take this as seriously as we can,” Dr Josten Helgeland, the local chief medical officer, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Aibel has not been shut down and those testing negative so far are working as normal. All are in quarantine in their free-time, however. The person confirmed with the British strain is a foreign worker, often viewed as a source of imported infection, but he reportedly has been in Norway since before borders were closed on January 29. He has not had any close contact with local residents. Aibel insisted that all its Corona containment measures had been followed.
***Health care workers heading in for shifts at the University Hospital in Stavanger could be encouraged by some new street art painted on a wall along a main commuter route. It’s signed by the anonymous Norwegian artist Pøbel, and it depicts Health Minister Bent Høie wearing a face mask and lifting up a health care professional in full protective gear. The image was immediately linked to an iconic scene in the film Dirty Dancing and Høie himself called it “incredibly beautiful.” Høie, who’s from the Stavanger area, told state broadcaster NRK that he thinks the artist “brought forth how grateful we all are for the work the health services are doing. They really deserve this.” Pøbel himself told NRK that his choice of location for the art, near the hospital, was “not coincidental” since it’s “a place many health care workers are passing by.” He called his latest work “a tribute to the health services, which has been heavy pressure during the pandemic.” He otherwise declined further comment, saying it was up to the viewer to interpret it. (To see photos of the art, click here – external link to NRK’s coverage).
***As many as 1,500 people are in quarantine in Trondheim after two confirmed cases of the British strain of the Corona virus were found among students at the local Singsaker School. Trondheim was already plagued by various outbreaks and has been forced to impose strict new measures to prevent the spread of infection. Now concerns are high that the more contagious new strain will lead to yet another. State broadcaster NRK reported that the elementary school has 390 students and 65 employees. All were sent home on Thursday and ordered into quarantine along with their families. At least 27 people in Trondheim have now been confirmed infected with the new strain that’s spread to Heimdal and neighouring Stjørdal. Six other municipalities have also felt obliged to impose new restrictions.
***Norway’s bishops are asking local leaders of The Norwegian Church around the country to decide on whether they’ll postpone spring confirmation ceremonies until the autumn. That would allow more family members to attend the confirmations that serve as a “coming of age” for a majority of 15-year-olds around the country. Corona containment measures currently allow gatherings of no more than 10 people, and more uncertainty around travel and other restrictions will prevail during the next several months. Health officials suggested on Wednesday, however, that life may return to normal by the end of summer.
Fully 54 percent of Norway’s 15-year-olds were confirmed in The Norwegian Church in 2019, while many others opt for non-religious ceremonies. Most confirmations have traditionally taken place in the spring, but Corona-related restrictions threaten to spoil them. Archbishop Olav Fykse Tveit is thus asking local church officials to decide on postponements as soon as possible. Around 450 prospective konfirmanter in Siljan, Porsgrunn and Skien have already been told that ceremonies will be held this fall instead of between April and June.
***New strains of the Corona virus continue to emerge around Norway, forcing Bergen into a new lockdown and raising serious concern in Trondheim. Another 37 confirmed cases of virus mutation were reported in the Bergen area on Tuesday, including 27 that involved the British strain while 10 were the South African strain. A total of 27 cases of virus mutation, believed to be even more contagious tha the original Covid-19, was also registered in Trondheim this week, along with reports that some people with positive results had violated quarantine. They were being reported to the police.
Even the small town of Nittedal, just north of Oslo, was reeling under a new outbreak of the Corona virus including two cases of the British mutation. Around 3,500 people out skiing at the popular Varingskollen Alpine Center in Nittedal between last Monday and through Sunday have been asked to test themselves for the Corona virus as soon as possible. The slopes were staying open but all ski equipment rental and cafés were closed.
***Norway’s education minister announced cancellation on Monday of written final exams for both junior high- and high school students, after months of debate over the quality of instruction during the Corona crisis. Oral exams for some high school students, however, will proceed as planned. “The pandemic has without doubt led to varying degrees of instruction,” said Education Minister Guri Melby of the Liberal Party. It’s been difficult for schools around the country to maintain national standards for instruction that’s tested in final exams. Several opposition parties in Parliament along with student organizations had urged cancellation, with even newspaper Aftenposten editorializing that exams should be cancelled. Constant fluctuation between digital and classroom instruction has been demanding for both teachers and students. Nine out of 10 student councils at 183 high schools around Norway had also recommended cancellation.
***Only 24 new confirmed cases of the Corona virus were registered in Oslo from Sunday to Monday. It was the lowest number since October, before the second wave of infection hit Norway, but officials remain on guard because of new virus strains. “We can celebrate how 700,000 Oslo residents have shown how we can really come together on something,” the city government leader in charge of health issues, Robert Steen of the Labour Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday morning. The number of new cases is less than half as many a week ago and a fraction of the 242 new cases reported in November when city officials imposed a new shutdown that has remained in force and even been expanded.
The biggest concern now is the spread of new strains of the Corona virus that have hit several areas in and around Oslo, including news cases in suburban Asker, plus Bergen and the Hardanger region. Bergen, Ulvik and Kvam were in lockdown mode early this week.
***Norwegians won’t be able to cross the border into Sweden until at least April. While Norwegian border closures were still up for review, Sveriges Radio reported Saturday that the Swedish government has decided to keep its borders closed to Norwegians, Danes and the British until March 31. Swedish authorities cite the threat of more imported infection involving new strains of the Corona virus, not least the mutation that first occurred in the UK late last year. Others are now appearing as well, including one from South Africa.
It means Norwegians won’t be able travel into Sweden even with documentation of a negative Corona test. Another 18 cases of Corona infection have been confirmed in Halden, meanwhile, which is located on the border to Sweden. That brings the total number of cases to 380 in Halden, which remains under strict Corona containment measures. Several new cases of the South African strain of the virus have been confirmed, meanwhile, in Bergen. Nearly half the population of the western mountain community of Ulvik in Hardanger, meanwhile, remains in quarantine after an outbreak of Covid-19 (see below).
***Norwegians who own holiday homes in Sweden were cleared for visits by a court in Oslo on Friday, only to be stymied once again by an appeal and an extension of border closings by Swedish authorities. They were nonetheless encouraged when the Oslo County Court ruled Friday that the state hadn’t adequately documented a need for mandatory quarantine upon return to Norway. Newspaper VG and state broadcaster NRK reported that the court ruled in favour of Norwegians who have complained mightily over not being allowed to visit vacation properties in Sweden during the Corona crisis, many of which lie just over the border from Norway. The court ruled that quarantine for owners of hytter/stugor in Sweden is such an infringement of their freedom of movement and property rights that it requires a thorough evaluation of whether infection control weighs more heavily. The court expressed doubts, meanwhile, over whether the Norwegian government’s restructions are invalid
Owners of property in Sweden can’t jump in their cars and head for their hytter any time soon, however. The state had until March 5 to appeal or come up with new regulations, and filed an appeal just hours after the verdict came down. Borders between Sweden and Norway also remain closed, with Swedish authorities extending their closure on Saturday (Feb 6) until March 31. Current rules thus continue to apply, and they allow only day trips for inspections or necessary maintenance. Any overnight stays trigger 10 days of mandatory quarantine upon return to Norway. More than 12,000 Norwegians own holiday property in Sweden, and around 1,000 were behind the class-action lawsuit against the state, which also has restricted hytte visits within Norway as well. There is no so-called “hytte ban” at present, but Norwegians are not supposed to invite guests to their holiday homes nor frequent local stores.
***There’s been a new outbreak of what’s suspected to the British strain of the Corona virus, this time at the main hospital in southeastern Norway. Administrators at Sykehuset Østfold in Kalnes, between Fredrikstad and Sarpsborg, were sounding alarms Friday (Feb 5) that too few hospital personnel have been vaccinated yet. The hospital will receive 1,800 doses of the new AstraZeneca vaccine, but vaccinations won’t be able to begin before February 15 at the earliest.
***Health officials in Lier, located between Drammen and Oslo, were also worried about a possible outbreak of the British strain of the virus heading into the weekend. New cases of infection were linked to Tranby School, a local treatment center for drug addicts and a produce packaging plant. Massive testing was due to be carried out during the weekend.
***More confirmed cases of the Corona virus have been found in Norway, including two new cases of the South African strain in Bergen. It’s the first time the South African strain can’t be directly tied to imported infection. Health officials reported a total of 254 confirmed cases of the virus mutations on Thursday including 26 new overnight. Of them, 25 were identified as the British strain and one of the South African strain. State broadcaster NRK had reported the South African cases in Bergen, involving infected residents who had not been abroad themselves. The source of infection was unclear, and that’s what worries health officials most at present.
Lesser-known mutations have also been discovered among residents of a nursing home in Bærum that are neither the British nor South African strain. The threat presented by the spread of new virus strains is what’s prompting state and local authorities to maintain strict Corona containment measures, even though infection levels nationwide are on the decline.
***There’s been a “considerable decline” in Corona infection cases nationwide and “the trend is good,” Norwegian health officials said Wednesday, despite a rash of local outbreaks that has forced more social restrictions. They’re likely to be eased in some areas, and next week nursing home residents will even be able to receive visitors and get a hug. “It will be allowed to hug again,” Health Minister Bent Høie said at a government press conference, at least for the majority of nursing home residents who have received their second vaccination. They won’t have to maintain distance from others, Høie said, “because the vaccine gives them good protection.”
Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the Norwegian public health institute FHI also cited a “considerable decline” in total infection numbers, “but we need to be prepared that a quick increase can occur.” There have been several local outbreaks that have forced new shutdowns, but she was also pleased that hospitalizations have declined, too. Vaccinations were due to double next week, as more doses arrive in Norway.
***Norwegian drug authorities welcomed news this week that the Russian vaccine known as Sputnik V, has been found to be highly effective. “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Dr Steinar Madsen, medical director at Statens legemiddelverk (The Norwegian Medicines Agency) told news bureau NTB after the medical journal The Lancet published a positive analysis of the drug showing it to be 91.6 percent effective. “This is very promising,” Madsen said. If it’s accepted by European authorities, it can come to Norway as part of the vaccine allotments Norway receives through an agreement with the EU.
***Norway’s popular and scenic Hardanger area was struggling with infection outbreaks on Tuesday, and feared that a confirmed case of the British strain of the Corona virus would spread. A total of 18 new Corona cases were confirmed in Ulvik, while infection was also confirmed in the nearby communities of Voss, Kvam and Samnanger. Ulvik responded quickly with strict measures, shutting down most businesses and stores and even banning visits at private homes. All restaurants and other public gathering places were also closed. Ulvik has a very small population and got through last year with only four confirmed cases of Corona. That’s why 18 new in one day, and 10 more in recent days, is considered alarming.
“We have as much control as we can in a situation like this,” Ulvik Mayor Hans Petter Thorbjørnsen told state broadcaster NRK. Five of the new cases are also the new more contagious strain. Voss, a popular skiing area, reported two new cases, while Kvam had four new cases during the weekend and Samnanger had one. Neighbouring regions of Eidfjord, a popular cruise destination before the Corona crisis set in, and Ullensvang were on high alert and also imposing stricter infection control measures.
***A total of 93 soldiers tied to the recent NATO military exercises in Northern Norway have since tested positive for the Corona virus. NRK reported on Tuesday that local health officials weren’t informed about infection warnings issued by the state public health institute FHI in advance of the exercises that were ultimately cancelled. They weren’t involved in planning for the exercises either, and were expressing displeasure this week over infection risk for their local communities. Norwegian defense officials have stressed, however, that all arriving soldiers from abroad were sent into quarantine, and isolated if test results were positive.
***State authorities clamped down on the southern cities of Halden and Sarpsborg Sunday evening (Jan 31), after a local outbreak of a new strain of the Corona virus. The outbreak has been traced to a hockey training session for children that resulted in 23 new confirmed cases of the virus, at least one of which is the new, more contagious mutation. Halden Mayor Anne-Kari Holm told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the hockey event at the Halden Ice Hall “should never have been held.” It wasn’t illegal, though, and officials wanted children and youth to be able to gather. Local organizers insist, and Holm confirms, that they followed all anti-infection guidelines that apply to children and organized sporting activities.
Halden is nonetheless left with a total of 324 local cases of confirmed infection and both it and nearby Sarpsborg are subject to the same strict shut-down rules as Oslo, Nordre Follo and Ås: closed schools, shopping centers, restaurants and most everything else except grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. The neighbouring townships of Fredrikstad and Hvaler were subjected to the next-highest level of closure (so-called “Ring Two” of standards announced Saturday) while Moss and Våler won’t be liberated from the highest level from Wednesday as scheduled. A new evaluation for all of Southeastern Norway (still best known as Oslo, Akershus and Østfold) is due on Tuesday after results of test analyses show whether more cases of the new virus strain have emerged.
***The government’s new Corona crisis compensation and financial aid packages that were proposed just before the weekend “must be improved,” claims Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party and several other opposition politicians in Parliament. They want compensation for closed businesses’ losses to continue until at least October 1, instead of July 1, and more financial aid for airlines that have lost the majority of their business because of travel restrictions. The Conservatives-led government, which lacks a majority in Parliament, must thus negotiate, probably first with Progress, its former coalition partner, before offering likely sweetened financial aid to both companies and individuals.
***This summer’s music festival season remains highly uncertain, because of the unpredictability of Corona infection. The government is thus offering NOK 350 million in support for festival and concert organizers so they can begin planning and have a financial cushion if everything has to be cancelled again. The idea is stimulate cultural life and try to secure summer music and theatrical programs.
***The new “British” strain of the Corona virus has been found in the test results of at least two British soldiers who arrived in Northern Norway earlier this month for NATO winter exercises. Local health care officials in Målselv township fear that more soldiers are infected as well. They went into full emergency mode and have imposed extra infection control measures. Dr Vidar Bjørnås, chief medical officer in Målselv, told state broadcaster NRK that discovery of the so-called British mutation of the virus was “not unexpected” and that British personnel have all been handled as if they were infected with it.
The NATO exercises that brought a total of 3,000 NATO troops to Norway have since been cancelled, because of the infection risk and logistical challenges. The two British soldiers confirmed to be infected with the more contagious form of the virus arrived in a second group of British personnel who landed in early January and they’ve been kept in isolation.
***Oslo-area residents can once again travel to their hytter (holiday homes), as long as they don’t invite guests along on the trip. Government officials eased some Corona restrictions on Thursday evening but are still advising extreme caution. Residents of 25 municipalities in the greater Oslo area were asked last weekend not to travel outside their own region, to prevent the spread of a mutant strain of the Corona virus. Now they can, except those living in Nordre Follo, where the outbreak of the new strain began. Health Minister Bent Høie urged, however, that residents travel only accompanied by those in their own households and that they don’t invite guests. They’re also asked to do their shopping for the weekend at home and not to frequent stores, restaurants or others gathering places in the area around their hytter. Restrictions against other “unnecessary” travel in Norway remain in place. Norway also closed its borders as of midnight Thursday for the next 14 days, in another attempt to contain the virus.
***New cases of the Corona virus have declined dramatically, prompting Prime Minister Erna Solberg to conclude that containment measures are working. It remains a paradox, however, that she still felt a need to impose some of the strictest rules ever this week. Solberg is closing Norway’s borders to most everyone except permanent residents, even at a time when infection levels haven’t been so low since October. At that time, Oslo was a fairly open city whereas now it’s all but shut down. That’s because of concerns over outbreaks of the new, potentially more dangerous British strain of the Corona virus, and the threat of more imported infection from abroad.
Newspaper Aftenposten reports that this week’s numbers nonetheless reflect a 27 percent decline in infection since New Year. The spike then prompted Solberg to impose new rules limiting social gatherings. She thanked Norwegians on Wednesday for respecting them but felt compelled to impose still more restrictions last weekend and now, the border closings, all aimed at controlling and even “eliminating” the new strain. Health officials were still waiting for analyses of new testing to determine whether more cases of the British strain have spread in the Oslo area. Only eight out of 120 tests in outbreak areas were positive, and most were being traced to a possible source.
***Norway’s vaccination program faces delays of one to two months, Health Minister Bent Høie confirmed on Tuesday. He said he was sorry to report at his latest press conference that Norway won’t be getting the large deliveries of vaccine from producer AstraZeneca that were expected. Fewer deliveries mean fewer vaccinations, with state public health institute FHI telling newspaper VG on Tuesday that “this means a considerable delay in the vaccination program. It means that many in the high-risk groups will be vaccinated in April and May instead of February and March.” Norway had expected 1.12 million doses in February, but now vaccine deliveries are delayed over all of Europe.
Trouble has also cropped up with vaccine deliveries from producer Pfizer. Norway has been receiving its allotment of the Pfizer vaccine via Swedish authorities, who in turn receive them through the EU. Since Norway is not a member of the EU but entitled to an allotment though its trade deal with the EU, Sweden is helping to administer it. Now, however, Sweden is suspending payments to Pfizer because of a conflict over whether each glass of vaccine contains five or six doses. Pfizer is charging for six, but Swedish vaccine coordinator Richard Bergström told newspaper Dagens Nyheter that’s “unacceptable” if six doses are not retrievable without a special needle. The lack of payments may also lead to vaccination delays.
***15 mayors in Northern Norway are mulling new quarantine requirements for everyone arriving from Southern Norway. The goal, reports news bureau NTB, is to prevent the spread of the new British strain of the Corona virus that’s currently spreading in the Oslo area. After initially being discovered at a nursing home and day care center in Nordre Follo, seven cases have been linked to the Smestadhjemmet nursing home in Oslo and officials in Bærum fear an outbreak at the Stabæktunet nursing home as well. Quarantine requirements for people traveling to Northern Norway last spring, however, were highly controversial and Health Minister Bent Høie doesn’t favour a new ones. He stresses that infection levels in Norway have been declining nationwide and that he thinks health authorities can gain control over the British strain.
***Travel to hytter (holiday homes) is being strongly discouraged for all Norwegians living in the Oslo metropolitan area that’s currently under a new Corona shutdown. Government officials don’t want to risk further unwitting spread of the new British variant of the Corona virus, discovery of which led to the shutdown. The best way to do that, they say, is to limit mobility. No actual ban on hytte visits has been imposed, like the controversial one last spring, but local officials in Hemsedal, Hallingdal and other popular hytte areas aren’t rolling out the welcome mats. It was ironic that Health Minister Bent Høie had just arrived at his own hytte outside Stavanger when he had to impose new restrictions on Saturday, but he’s since returned to Oslo. The bottom line: Travel to hytter is not viewed as “necessary,” except in the case of urgent maintenance needs. Those already at their hytter are not being asked to travel home “but should not have visitors,” states the health ministry.
***The Norwegian government will finally start sending out its own translations of its Corona containment measures in a variety of languages, 10 months after the Corona crisis began. The goal is to better reach immigrant communities, which have been overrepresented in Norway’s infection statistics. Norwegian and English versions of press releases will be sent out first, reports newspaper Klassekampen, followed by versions in Polish, Somali, Urdu and Arabic. That can take up to several days, however, because of the need to quality-check translations. Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s statements at her frequent press conferences will also be translated into the languages of Norway’s largest immigrant groups. Around 35 percent of all confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus involve Norwegian residents who were born outside the country, according to statistics from public health institute FHI. Most are from Poland or Somalia.
***Oslo police are doubling the fines they’ll impose on people caught breaking local Corona containment measures. State prosecutors want the same level of fines nationwide, suggesting they’ll soon go up quickly in other cities and regions, too. Anyone caught arranging a party with more than 10 guests total will be fined NOK 20,000 (USD 2,350) if police come knocking on the door. News bureau NTB also reported that if a company or other such entity arranges such a party, fines will hit NOK 50,000. Guests at such an arrangement will be fined 10,000 each. Public places caught serving alcohol in Oslo face closure and fines of up to NOK 50,000.
Quarantine violations can also trigger fines of NOK 20,000, while failure to wear a face mask can cost NOK 2,000. Failure to meet obligatory Covid-19 testing requirements, for example within 24 hours of arrival in Norway from abroad, will result in fines of NOK 10,000. The doubling of fines “stresses the seriousness of violating Corona regulations,” Beate Brinch Sand of the Oslo Police District told NTB. Police districts around the country are being asked to put a priority on alleged violators.
***Norway’s public health institute FHI confirms an overall decline nationwide in the numbers of people being infected by the Corona virus. FHI linked the decline to the stricter anti-infection measures imposed by the government during the first two weeks of 2021. The latest weekly report from FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) shows a 36 percent decline in the number of new cases of Covid-19 in Norway from the week before. There’s also been a 29 percent decline in the number of people being tested, though, after it hit a record high right after the Christmas- and New Year holidays. The portion of those testing positive, meanwhile, declined from 2.5 percent during the first week of the year to 2.2 percent in the second week. Additional declines in hospital admissions and deaths “can be a result” of the government’s social shutdown announced on January 3. Restrictions were eased somewhat earlier this week on a national basis, but most continue in Oslo, for at least another two weeks.
***Health Minister Bent Høie warned again on Wednesday against easing Corona containment measures too quickly. Even though public health officials released statistics showing significant declines in infection levels (see above), Høie thinks Corona infection remains high and could quickly rise again. Norway’s public health institute reported that around 65 percent of actual Covid-19 infection is now being picked up, suggesting that as much as 35 percent still goes undetected. They have also registered 33 cases of the new English strain of the virus and one case of the South African, both of which are highly contagious. FHI thus characterized the current infection situation as “unstable,” even though the infection curve is flattening out.
***Some international media outlets have been too eager in connecting 13 deaths among elderly vaccinated Norwegians to a Covid-19 vaccine. Health- and pharmaceutical officials were stressing this week that dozens in high age brackets die every day and that it’s far too early to conclude that the vaccine was responsible. Norway’s national pharmaceutical association (Legemiddelverket) told Norwegian news bureau NTB on Tuesday that it had been contacted by media organizations from CNN to Fox News and Bloomberg, after it had reported how it was examining deaths of recently vaccinated elderly Norwegians. The first examinations of 13 show that the vaccine played no role. Another 10 recently vaccinated elderly had died by Tuesday, but Dr Camilla Stoltenberg of the public health institute claims that’s “natural” in a country where 300 to 400 nursing home residents die every week.
Most receiving the vaccine in Norway so far, Stoltenberg noted at a regular government press conference on Monday, already have pre-existing health problems and are weak. The vaccine may prompt a fever or other health issues, leading to some re-evaluations of who should receive it, but the 13 elderly haven’t died because of it. “We don’t believe the reports of deaths we’ve received in Norway form any basis for warning against taking the vaccine in general,” Pernille Harg of Legemiddelverket told Faktisk.no, a fact-checking Norwegian news service.
***Norway has begun its second round of vaccinations for those who already have received their first shot. Now, however, the state public health institute is unsure whether two shots of the vaccine will be enough. State broadcaster NRK reported Sunday night that so-called “booster” shots may be necessary. That means people like Svein Andersen, who’s among the few to have had both Corona shots so far, may need a third before the end of the year.
Around 40,000 Norwegians are now awaiting their second dose of the vaccine (and millions their first) amidst new doubts over whether that will fully protect them from Covid-19. Geir Bukholm, head of infectious disease at FHI, said health care officials and vaccine producers themselves “are prepared” to launch a booster program if necessary: “We believe people will be immune for at least a while, and it’s important that people be vaccinated, especially if they’re at risk of becoming critically ill from the virus,” Bukholm told NRK, “but there’s still a lot that’s unknown around all this and we won’t have answers until after folks have been vaccinated.”
***Police continue to prosecute violations of Corona containment measures, also in Norway’s more rural areas. Innlandet County’s police, for example, have registered 45 complaints and either fined, charged or indicted the alleged offenders. One case involved a man who spit on another and claimed he was infected with Covid-19. In another case, a business owner in Hadeland was accused of putting foreign workers to work without following state quarantine regulations. Those found guilty have been fined NOK 20,000 (USD 2,350).
***Pharmaceutical company Pfizer is reducing the numbers of deliveries of its Corona virus vaccine to Norway and Europe from January 18. They cite production capacity reasons, but claimed they’ll be back up and beyond current levels by the end of February. Joachim Henriksen of Pfizer Norge told state broadcaster NRK on Friday that deliveries will continue but be reduced equally over all of Europe for the next few weeks. The reduction can amount to as many as 7,800 doses a week, according to Norwegian health officials, just when Norwegian cities are launching their mass vaccination programs (see below). It means Norway can received nearly 40,000 fewer doses than state public health institute FHI had expected. By March, however, Henriksen said Pfizer aims to offset the reduction in March, when it expects to be able to deliver more vaccine than estimated.
***Several hundred people were turned away at border crossings last week, reports the state police in charge of enforcing the Norwegian government’s strict new border control measures. A total of 472 non-residents were denied entry into Norway, up by 107 from the week before. Police report more traffic at border crossings after many smaller one were physically closed earlier this month. Police are also conducting more controls in an effort to ease the threat of imported Corona infection.
***Oslo began mass vaccinations on Thursday (Jan 14), with 85-year-old Arne Svein Jul Bekken among those getting the first of two shots with the Covid-19 vaccine at his local vaccination center in the Ulven district. The city hopes to be vaccinating 110,000 people a week by February. Everyone living in Oslo nursing homes and special housing for the elderly has now been vaccinated. Residents of the Norwegian capital are now due to be called in by age group, with the oldest first, along with health care workers considered to be working in critical positions.
The southern city of Sarpsborg was first to start mass vaccinations this week (see below). Now it’s mostly a matter of how many vaccine doses local municipalities can get that will determine how quickly the programs will proceed. Oslo, meanwhile, is also getting Norway’s first dosages of the Moderna vaccine, in addition to Pfizer/Biontech’s. Health care workers were glad a second vaccine is now available.
***Norway’s graduating high school students known as russ (“roose”) probably won’t be able to gather for huge national parties this spring either. Even though Corona vaccination programs are underway, the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus will likely remain too high for thousands of partying russ to gather, for example, at the traditional Landstreff at Kongeparken in Rogaland. Around 14,500 tickets have already been sold for the event, scheduled for May 7-9, but officials at the public health institute FHI cautioned this week it may be cancelled. “I don’t think it’s probable that we’ll be able to allow so many people to gather in May,” said Line Vold of FHI at a government press conference Wednesday.
***Everyone arriving in Norway will now face immediate and obligatory testing for the Corona virus, after the government has gone along with calls to revoke a 24-hour grace period. Justice Minister Monica Mæland of the Conservative Party cited higher government concern over import of new strains of Covid-19, instead of political pressure. The Progress Party has advocated immediate testing on arrival since last summer and testing was finally made obligatory. Foreign travelers and Norwegians alike, however, have most recently been allowed to avoid long lines for testing at the airport, as long as they submit to Corona testing in the city where they’ll be staying within 24 hours.
It’s proven difficult for the government to enforce the 24-hour rule, however, and too many new arrivals have ignored the testing requirement. News bureau NTB reported this week that only 40 percent of those arriving at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen were tested immediately in the days right after the New Year’s holiday. Testing has since risen to around 60 percent, while it has been as high as 96 percent at the Torp Airport in Sandefjord and 98 percent at the airport in Trondheim.
“We see that many people are reacting to how people are traveling in to Norway without being tested,” Mæland said at the government’s press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We also see that the risk for imported infection is rising, so we’re imposing new measures to limit that. We are working to increase testing capacity and the 24-hour rule will be removed.”
***Sarpsborg is the first city in Norway to launch a mass vaccination program, after struggling with among the highest infection rates in the country. Local health officials have set up a vaccination center at a hotel that can vaccinate 2.5 percent of the city’s 56,000 residents every day. “We can vaccinate between 1,000 and 1,500 people every single day if we get enough vaccine,” Sarpsborg’s health director Øivind Werner Johansen told state broadcaster NRK. “We have a lot of capacity.”
Sarpsborg had initially escaped extensive Corona virus infection, but then came a rash of outbreaks last fall. They left the southern city near the Swedish border with 2.1 percent of the local population infected, a high level for Norway. Around 600 were vaccinated on the first day at the Quality Hotel in Sarpsborg, which is thus also getting some welcome if different business during the Corona crisis. As more vaccine arrives in Norway, Johansen hopes to get 10,000 doses next week “because we can vaccinate that many in a responsible manner.”
***Norway’s infection numbers hit new highs during the weekend and not least on Monday morning (Jan 11). State Health Director Bjørn Guldvog claimed Sunday evening that the country is now “in a very demanding situation where we don’t have a full overview over the consequences of the Christmas and New Year holidays.” Guldvog reacted after seeing the new numbers that also included a sudden sharp rise in hospitalizations and in the number of people so sick that they need to be put on respirators. Infection is highest among those aged 20 to 29, many of whom traveled during the Christmas and New Year holiday period.
At the same time, however, many more people than ever before are being tested. It’s thus natural, Guldvog noted, that many more positive results are coming in. “We can see quite strong growth in the weeks to come,” Guldvog said, ” but we have imposed strong measures, so we hope we’ll be able to limit infection again during the next several days.” A total of 20,833 people had been vaccinated as of Monday afternoon, far fewer than hoped but a number expected to rise as more vaccine arrives in Norway.
***Among the recent outbreaks of Covid-19 in Norway is a group of employees at the Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen. A patient who’d been admitted was infected without realizing it, and 13 people working in the hospital wound up infected as well. Newspaper Bergens Tidende reported that everyone who’d had close contact with the patient had been tested, not least after several employees began developing symptoms. The hospital has managed to maintain normal operations, also while those infected have been in isolation.
***There’s also been another outbreak of Covid-19 at the hospital in Drammen that already has spread to the hospital in nearby Bærum, just outside Oslo, and into local home health care services. As of Monday afternoon, 12 patients and 22 employees were infected at Drammen Sykehus, which was set to begin mass testing of all employees. Fully 85 were in quarantine along with nine employees of the orthopedic ward at Bærum Sykehus, where a patient from Drammen was sent before the outbreak was discoverered. Another 60 patients had been treated at the Drammen hospital’s orthopedic ward and all have been contacted.
***Foreign workers returning to Norway after Christmas and New Year holidays back home have been found to be carrying false documents claiming they’d tested negative for the Corona virus. “Many have tried to enter Norway illegally with false documentation,” Torill Sorte of the police told news bureau NTB. Fully 54 people were sent back to where they came from after landing at the Torp Airport in Sandefjord, either because of invalid test certification, a failure to take a Corona test before departure or failure to certify quarantine arrangements for the next 10 days. All test documentation, moreover, must be presented “in a language border patrol police can understand,” according to NTB.
***Norway is on the verge of securing 2 million doses of another new Corona vaccine, after the EU reported Friday that it’s likely to be approved by the end of the month. The Corona virus vaccine from AstraZeneca could arrive by the end of March. Vaccinations have been underway since Norway received the Pfizer vaccine just after Christmas. Norway is being assisted by Sweden in acquiring vaccines through the EU’s agreements with producers, since Sweden is a member of the EU and Norway is not. Swedish vaccine coordinator Richard Bergström told state broadcaster NRK on Friday that nearly a million doses of the new AstraZeneca vaccine can arrive in February and another million in March. In addition come another 300,000 doses from Pfizer and “a small contribution of around 40,000 doses” from a third producer, Moderna.
With a total of 3.6 million doses now secured because of EU agreements with Pfizer, the pace of Norway’s vaccination program can pick up considerably. The elderly are first in line along with others at risk, followed by health care workers and age groups from those over 60 and downwards.
***The doctor who’s been Norway’s most trusted face on TV during the Corona crisis is now worried about how local governments will be able to handle massive vaccination programs and major new outbreaks of the virus at the same time. Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate warned of “a difficult period” between now and the Easter holidays in early April after Norway woke up to a new infection record on Wednesday (Jan 6), when a total of 930 new cases of Covid-19 were registered. That’s the highest in a 24-hour period since the Corona crisis began, and Nakstad worries about looming hospital capacity if patients become seriously ill. “If we don’t get control of this now, and also have to deal with new virus strains that are more contagious, we can actually land in a situation that’s more difficult than in March,” Nakstad told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday. Hospitalizations peaked at 325 last April, compared to 127 now, “but it won’t take much before we’re back where we were in March, or worse. We’ve seen that happen in other countries.”
State and local officials have already responded with new social shutdowns nationwide, with Norwegians urged to stay home and warned not to invite anyone for dinner or other social contact until Jan 18 at the earliest. Most restaurants and bars remain closed, after local bans on serving alcoholic beverages were expanded nationwide. Now there’s talk of actual curfews, with people only allowed to go out to the grocery store or for a short walk, but Justice Minister Monica Mæland said the government would resist imposing such “invasive” measures.
***Mandatory Corona testing has forced closure of 58 border crossings in Norway. Testing can only be offered at major border crossings, meaning that those with less traffic including the old Svinesund Bridge crossing at Halden are now barricaded, with travelers told to enter the country via the larger border crossing on the E6 highway to the west. Only the Magnormoen and Trysil border crossings are equipped with testing facilities in Eastern Norway, with cars funneled through tents where testing takes place. After delays of up to three hours at the Svinesund center, local officials have opted to send some travelers to other regional test centers.
***More than a dozen American soldiers have tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Norway for military exercises at Setermoen in Troms og Finnmark. They’ve been placed in isolation at the Setermoen camp near Harstad. A total of 3,000 NATO soldiers are due to arrive in Norway for this year’s Joint Viking 2021 winter exercises and all must be tested. A total of 15 from the US Marine Corps have tested positive so far, according to the Norwegian Army. None of them had any symptoms but will remain in isolation for at least 10 days. Around 1,600 soldiers were arriving this week alone, from the US, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. Positive tests were also expected within the British troops, reports state broadcaster NRK.
***A major hotel at a popular skiing destination in Norway has had to suddenly shut down, after six employees tested positive to the Corona virus. So have several recent guests. Everyone who has stayed at the Radisson Blu Resort Trysil since December 26 was being sent messages from the hotel this week about the sudden outbreak. The chief medical officer in the town of Trysil, Dr Hanna Rydlov, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that they should all cease social contact, be aware of any symptoms of Covid-19 and get tested. Rydlov said she’d received word that at least five guests at the hotel during the Christmas and New Year holidays had tested positive after their stay. The hotel has more than 200 rooms and a central location in the popular winter destination, best known for both its alpine and cross-country skiing.
A total of six employees of the hotel and a firm that offers services to the hotel had also tested positive, as have two of their close contacts. That forced the sudden closure of the hotel on Monday (Jan 4). It will stay closed at least until January 11. Guests could either go home or move to the Radisson Blu Mountain Resort Trysil, on the other side of Mount Trysil. “We’ve had good infection prevention routines, have implemented them and carried out exercises about them,” stated hotel director Maria Åhgren in a press release. “No matter how well-prepared we are, we’re never secured against an outbreak during this pandemic.”
***Prime Minister Erna Solberg has called for a halt to almost all social contact, to limit a recent increase in the spread of the Corona virus, but a new report from the state public health institute FHI shows that things could be much worse. Norway is still weathering the Corona storm better than most countries, even though the crisis is far from over.
Around 2,000 people had already been vaccinated in Norway as of Sunday, a week after the vaccination program began, mostly in nursing homes. FHI is also relieved that Norway has done well at protecting its elderly, with infection levels still relatively low: 83 of the 3,108 new cases of infection in the last week of 2020 were aged 80 or higher. Age groups with the highest levels of infection were 13-19, 20-39 and 40-59. That has also resulted in fewer new Corona patients in Norwegian hospitals. A total of 62 new patients were admitted last week, compared to 89 the week before. In the capital, Oslo, the number of new hospital admissions has declined for several weeks.
Norway also has registered far fewer deaths than most coutries (a total of 436 since the crisis began in March) and 18 last week, compared to much higher levels in November. Large areas of the country also still have no or very low infection.
***Flights from the UK were due to resume from Saturday (Jan 2) at 5pm, after the Norwegian government ended a ban tied to discovery of new strains of the Corona virus in Great Britain. Everyone arriving from London and other UK airports, however, is still subject to strict quarantine and testing rules upon arrival. Flights were banned after first one and then another highly contagious mutation of Covid-19 were discovered in Britain in December. “We’re still worried about imported infection,” an official in the health ministry told state broadcaster NRK. He noted, however, that the UK flight ban could be lifted “when we have established necessary control measures and adequate testing capacity at the airports.” EU officials have also encouraged an end to the bans on UK flights.
Everyone arriving from the UK must fill out a travel registration form aimed at controlling their movements after landing in Norway. They will also receive information on quarantine rules (10 days in a certified hotel) and must fill out forms as to where the quarantine will be carried out so that local municipalities can follow arrivals’ movements. All passengers landing in Norway from abroad must also undergo mandatory testing for Covid-19 within 24 hours of arrival. The test comes in addition to demands for certification of a negative test within 72 hours of arrival.
***The Norwegian government has imposed mandatory testing for the Corona virus upon arrival from abroad. It also plans to close several border crossings. From January 2, everyone arriving in Norway from so-called “red” countries with high infection levels must submit to a Corona test, preferably at an airport- or border test station. If no such testing station is available, testing must take place elsewhere within 24 hours of arrival. Exceptions will be made for children under age 12 and people with “critical social functions,” including those commuting over the border to work in Norway, diplomats and long-range truck drivers. The goal is to prevent imported infection, not least from those returning to work in Norway after holidays abroad. Norway also plans to physically close several of its 110 border stations in order to better control the need for testing. Specific locations had not yet been decided.
(For earlier Corona news in brief stretching back to March 2020, when the crisis began, click here.)