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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

FHI warns of new Corona waves this year

THREE TO FOUR NEW WAVES OF THE CORONA VIRUS may sweep over Norway this year, warns the Norwegian state public health institute FHI. Researchers think the Corona pandemic will enter a new phase in 2023, after China gave up its efforts to claim zero infection among its huge population.

With residents of China now allowed to travel and the country’s borders opening again, new infection alarms are ringing. Official infection statistics are questionable, but there’s little doubt that an enormous wave of infection has swept over the country and hospitals have been packed, mostly by elderly patients. Elsewhere in the world, though, immunity is rising and this year’s winter wave of infection has been lower than last year’s. Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) attributes that to the effect of vaccinations and the Omicron variant.

While many Norwegians continue to test positive and know of others around them who become ill, far fewer require hospitalization. Deaths have also declined so far this year, with Aavitsland attributing the decline to rising immunity among the public.

FHI warns, however, of three to four new waves of infection throughout the year and that seniors, who are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill, should get annual booster vaccinations. Norway recorded 3,431 Corona-related deaths in 2022, accounting for fully 70 percent of all those since the first was recorded in March 2020. The vast majority of Corona victims were in their 80s and 90s and two-thirds were patients at nursing homes.

NORWAY’S TOTAL NUMBER OF CONFIRMED CORONA CASES since the pandemic began rose to 1,475,867 as of January 5, 2023, according to state public health institute FHI. That’s up from just over 1,462,000 in May, when FHI stopped reporting daily statistics. A total of 1,170 new cases were reported in the past week, while officials caution that many cases now go unreported because of mostly home testing.

The death toll from the Corona virus and its variants stood at 4,286 as of November 15, 2022, when updates of death toll statistics and hospitalizations ended because of state budget cuts tied to a winding down of the pandemic. The death toll in November was up from 3,980 in May. FHI reported that a total of 4,341,281 Norwegians were fully vaccinated as of January, equal to around 92 percent of the adult population, many of whom have since received their fourth booster shots.

EARLIER CORONA-RELATED NEWS IN BRIEF:

***Researchers at Norway’s public health institute FHI (Folkehelse instituttet) think the wave of Covid-19 virus that spread quickly both before and after the Christmas and New Year holidays has “probably” crested. Figures by mid-January were showing fewer hospitalizations and registered cases, although most cases are no longer reported to health authorities. At one point earlier this month, there were more people hospitalized with serious flu than with Covid-19 variants. Health authorities think a wave of the RS-virus has also peaked, but warn that another Covid wave could strike later this winter.

Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate has recommended wearing face masks again for everyone with any flu-like systems and for anyone at risk of becoming seriously ill if infected. He also urged everyone with symptoms to stay home, to help keep the bugs that thrive in winter from spreading.

***A new Corona variant similar to “Kraken” in the US has been spreading in Norway, reports state public health institute FHI. The World Health Organisation (WHO) views Kraken, named after a mysterious sea monster, as the most contagious of all variants so far. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on January 5 that the technical name of the new variant spreading in Norway now is XBB. 1.4.1, and it’s a mutation of the Omicron virus. It’s closely related to the newly dominant “Kraken” variant (XBB. 1.5) in the US that now accounts for around 40 percent of test results analyzed.

“The variant we have here (in Norway) is very similar, and it’s good at avoiding immunity within the population,” FHI’s Karoline Bragstad told NRK. Several cases have been confirmed, mostly in the Oslo. The US’ XBB. 1.5 has showed up only twice so far, but that can also be because few test results are registered now, or analyzed, because of the emphasis on home testing instead of testing conducted by local government health services. “Because of less registered testing, reduced surveillance and budgets,” FHI reported, only around 300 test results are now being analyzed on a weekly basis.

***Sweden started demanding negative Corona tests in mid-January for travelers arriving from China, because of soaring infection rates in the country after it finally began to reopen late last year. Norwegian officials contend they will “harmonize” any new entry restrictions with health policy in the EU. Few if any commercial flights land in Norway directly from China.

***Norwegian hospitals have boosted preparedness in recent weeks after a rush of patients admitted with various respiratory illnesses and viruses. Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad, assistant state health director, doesn’t think admissions have peaked yet, despite the high percentage of Norwegians who are vaccinated against Corona and also have taken flu shots. More than 2,000 people were admitted with flu, other viruses and respiratory ailiments during the Christmas holidays, 338 of them with Covid-19, 238 with the RS virus and 532 with influensa.

***Norwegian health officials worry that far too few have taken their fourth booster shots of the Corona vaccine. They’ve been available to everyone over age 18, but young Norwegians have been the slowest to update their vaccines. With viruses of several types spreading rapidly in winter, public health institute FHI is urging everyone to get their shots.

“We’re not satisfied with the vaccination coverage of those aged 18 to 64,” Dr Are Stuwitz Berg of FHI told newspaper Aftenposten. “It concerns us.” Free vaccinations are still being offered through local governments and both the latest Moderna and Pfizer vaccines can also help ward off the Omicron variant.

***Norway rolled out a new medicine in early December that’s expected to provide effective treatment to those at risk of becoming seriously ill with the Corona virus. The medicine, called Paxlovid, is only available to those age 65 and older or with other serious health problems but health officials worry not enough of them testing positive for the virus are using it.

Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the state health directorate told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Norway received enough of the medicine for 25,000 people through the EU’s purchasing program. Access is thus limited, but Nakstad hopes it can save lives after a year with as many as 3,000 Corona-related deaths in Norway.

By early January Nakstad was disappointed that less than 600 packets of the medicine, avaliable at no charge on prescription basis, had been distributed at local pharmacies. Only 100 packets had been delivered to nursing homes. Another 1,200 were sent out health care specialists.

First in line to receive the medicine are those with serious immune deficiency, chronic illness, diabetes and serious heart or lung ailments, along with those 65 and over. The Paxlovid tablets hinder the virus from copying itself and spreading in the body. Nakstad stressed that it’s important for high-risk patients to begin treatment within a few days of the first symptoms of the virus. He recommended home testing with a followup at the doctor’s office: “If you develop respiratory symptoms, contact your doctor as quickly as possible.”

***Norway’s public health institute FHI now feels forced to cut staffing, since the government is cutting funding as Corona infection levels decline. Newspaper VG reports that all employees are being offered incentives to quit voluntarily. FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) has earlier warned that it may need to cut as many as 300 jobs because of the proposed state budget cuts. It’s ironic, after winning lots of praise during the Corona crisis and after its leaders were even invited to the Royal Palace to receive formal gestures of public appreciation.

Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, director of FHI, told the professional journal Dagens Medisin that budget cuts both this year and next could slash the equivalent of 300 full-time posts out of her staff. It’s also ironic that the cuts are coming from a Labour Party-led government, since Stoltenberg’s family has been linked to Labour for decades. Her father Thorvald is a former foreign minister and her brother, Jens Stoltenberg, is a former prime minister who now heads NATO. Current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who served as Jens Stoltenberg’ foreign minister for seven years, thus isn’t showing any favoritism with his unpopular budget tightening. FHI leaders have said they understood that extra funding during the Corona crisis would eventually disappear, just not this soon.

Hilde Risstad of the Norwegian doctors’ professional association Legeforeningen told VG on Monday that she fears the funding cuts will hurt the very preparedness for new medical emergencies they were told to prioritize. “Even though the political message is that we should prioritize surveillance and preparedness, it’s exactly those areas that will be hit the hardest,” Risstad said. Severance pay incentives to voluntarily resign from FHI have reportedly been offered everyone employed by FHI for at least a year. The offers come as Corona-related deaths have been rising, but also as a new wave of infection seems to have crested.

(For earlier Corona news in brief stretching back January 2021, click here. For even earlier coverage since Corona came to Norway in March 2020, click here.)

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