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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Covid-19 shown to damage memory

Norwegian researchers now claim there’s no doubt that the Covid-19 virus has caused memory loss for those infected by it. Their survey of memory problems among 112,000 Norwegians both before and after contracting the virus shows poorer memory after the illness than before.

The survey, published in The New England Journal of Medicine this winter, was the first of its kind and also shows how memory loss has continued three years after the date of infection. It also confirms that those who’ve had Covid-19 now have poorer memory than those infected by other viruses.

“Our main discovery is that memory problems don’t get better over time for everyone,” researcher Arne Søraas at the Oslo University Hospital told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month. He led the research team that followed participants both before and after they contracted the virus. Results suggest that as many as 40,000 Norwegians now struggle with concentration and memory after being ill with Covid-19, which “seems to affect the brain in a way that other infections don’t,” Søraas said.

The virus thus remains “more serious than an ordinary cold or flu,” he said. He thinks anyone falling ill with flu-like symptoms should still test themselves and take steps to avoid passing Covid on to others. Post-Covid memory problems emerging in the study included forgetting the time of when otherwise memorable events occurred, forgetting to do things participants said they’d do, difficulty coming up with names or subjects in a discussion, forgetting details of what they’d done during the day and struggling with reading comprehension.

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 2022, when FHI stopped reporting daily statistics because of state budget cuts. Health 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 5,313 as of late August 2023. More than 55,000 Norwegians have been hospitalized since the pandemic was confirmed in March 2020. FHI reported that a total of 4,341,281 Norwegians were fully vaccinated as of January 2023, equal to around 92 percent of the adult population, many of whom have since received their fourth booster shots and are now eligible for a fifth.

EARLIER CORONA-RELATED NEWS IN BRIEF:

***Norwegian health officials were reporting a steady decline of respiratory ailments by mid-February (2024), when fewer were testing positive for the Corona virus. That followed a sharp increase in new Corona cases in the autumn. “The winter wave of the Corona virus is over,” claimed a report on the website for Norway’s public health institute FHI. Officials said they were unsure when the next wave may come, though, and once again encouraged Norwegians to get vaccinated for the latest strains of the virus.

Hospitalizations of those seriously ill with Corona started to decline in mid-January. Around 350 were admitted during the first week of the new year, compared to 596 during the week before. Officials registered 39 Corona-related deaths, most of them aged 75 or older.

***The biggest pandemic-related problems are now all those suffering from so-called “Long Covid,” after-effects of the early strains of the virus or the vaccines used at the time. Many are still suffering from extreme fatigue, forgetfulness, shortness of breath and erratic heartbeats along with other ailments. They’ve formed their own association, Norsk Covidforening, to lobby for more help and more research on long-term effects of Covid infection.

***Corona-related deaths doubled during a single week in November, reported Norway’s public health institute FHI, but it wasn’t unexpected. The virus had been spreading again through the autumn, and November is often characterized by respiratory ailments. FHI registered the deaths of 76 patients during the third week of November, all of whom had been infected with the Corona virus in Norway. That was more than twice the number of 36 Corona-related deaths in the previous week.

“The incidents of hospitalizations and deaths is highest among those aged 75 and above,” reported FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet), “and it’s higher among those who didn’t receive a fifth booster shot of the Corona vaccine.” FHI added that this winter’s wave of Covid-19 infection was well underway and expected to spread.

***The Norwegian government has made a major change in how the Covid-19 virus is classified: As of November 20, 2023, it’s no longer deemed a dangerously infectious illness, and most Covid-related restrictions and programs have been withdrawn. “This is a special day,” Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol claimed when unveiling the changes. “We support the recommendations from the state health directorate and Norway’s public health institute FHI, that Covid-19 no longer meets legal criteria for classification as dangerous to the public.”

Kjerkol called it a “normalization” of the virus that caused so much upheaval in Norway that the former government all but shut down the country. Norway’s Covid containment measures also became among the strictest in Europe. The initial Covid-related restrictions and laws were first approved in March 2020 and amended around 300 times over the next two years. The new normalization means that Covid will now be viewed as similar to other respiratory ailments. Special programs that covered the costs of testing and treating patients will also be dropped, although the new anti-Covid drug Paxlovid will continue to be offered free of charge until April 1 2025. Cities and towns around the country will also continue to offer free vaccinations against Covid-19 and emerging variants.

***Researchers in Norway are trying to find out why so many Norwegians are suffering long-term effects of Covid virus infection, so-called “Long Covid.” Most are plagued by a lack of energy, some for months or even years now, and it may have something to do with their genes.Sick-leave has been rising in Norway this autumn, and among those feeling forced to “drop out” is Remi Solberg, a veteran politician Nordland who’s also had to pay for his own rehabilitation. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported recently how Solberg continued to suffer shortness of breath and fatigue long after he tested positive for the Corona virus in the spring of 2022. “At one point I was worried I had a form of dementia,” said the former mayor who most recently has been leader of Nordland’s county council. He also had trouble concentrating, reading official papers or even literature.

His doctor diagnosed it as “long covid” but Norway’s otherwise generous public health care system had no rehab programs to offer. Solberg created his own, at his own expense, and is now feeling better but he’s calling on his Labour Party-led government to take the issue seriously. Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum told Dagsavisen that the government is concerned about the higher sick leave numbers tied to Covid.

Dr Roald Omdal, among those researching causes of Covid after-effects, suspects an exhaustive reaction to the virus infection that’s tied to how a person’s genes react in turn. Another Norwegian study found that some new cases of Long Covid symptoms are being found among patients who haven’t had Covid. Research continues.

*** Norwegian health officials have been braced since early September for a new wave of infection related to the Corona virus. The new variant known as BA.2.86 had been confirmed in Norway, while another new Omicron variant, EG.5, was expected to be highly contagious. There had already been a marked increase in respiratory ailments as the autumn cold-and-flu season got underway. With no formal testing programs underway, it’s often unclear whether such ailments are Corona cases, or whether that even matters any longer since the same recommendations apply: If you’re sick, stay home to avoid infecting others.

Dr Preben Aavitsland of the public health institute FHI told news bureau NTB that he expects “several hundred hositalizations and a few hundred deaths” from the new virus variants during the winter, with the elderly most at risk. Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad, assistant director of the state health department, stressed this week, though, that there’s no cause for alarm. The numbers of Covid-related cases are rising but that’s also considered “natural as we head into the autumn.”

***New versions of the Corona vaccine will be made available in Norway by the end of 2023. They’re believed to offer extra protection against new Omicron variants of the Corona virus. Norway’s public health institute FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) reports that municipalities are expected to be able to start offering the updated vaccines in October. “The plan is that this will be a vaccine especially directed against the XBB-variant of Omicron, which dominiates now,” Dr Preben Aavitsland of FHI told state broadcaster NRK. He said the vaccines will be updated versions of the Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax and Biontech vaccines offered earlier: “As soon as they’re aproved by authorities in the EU- and European Economic Area countries, we can use them.”

Booster shots are recommended for everyone in high-risk groups because of illness or advanced age, with local authorities in charge of how they’ll be offered. FHI stressed that the vast majority of Norwegians already have built up immunity to the virus, so the risk of serious illness is low.

***Norwegian health officials are closely following developments around a “new and unusual” variant of the Corona virus. There’s reason for concern, they say, since two of the only five confirmed cases of the variant have already surfaced in Denmark. “We’re watching this with a certain degree of concern,” Karoline Bragstad of Norway’s public health institute FHI told news bureau NTB in late August. The other three cases of the new variant, called BA 2.86, have surfaced in the US, Great Britain and Israel.

“The fact that it’s surfaced in such different countries gives researchers reason to believe that the variant has already spread around the world, and that it’s circulated for a while,” Bragstad said. She stressed, however, that “we have no reason to believe that the variant will have other symtoms than the variants we already have, but it’s too early to tell since there are only five confirmed cases.”

She also stressed that many Norwegians have already been infected with the Corona virus several times, that vaccines are available and that there’s already “a certain immunity” within the population. “So if it spreads easily, it won’t necessarily mean that we face more serious illness,” Bragstad said. Infection levels of all respiratory ailments are expected to rise in the autumn and winter months.

***People suffering long-term effects of the Corona virus can experience ailments that are not milder after the Delta variant, according to researchers in Bergen. New research ties so-called “long Covid” to individuals’ immune systems. “It doesn’t looke like long-term effects after Omicron are any milder than after the Delta variant,” Professor Rebecca Cox at the University of Bergen told newspaper Aftenposten recently. She and her colleagues have been gathering research results from 6,000 Covid patients in the Bergen area. They want to examine any differences in ailments suffered by those infected with the Delta variant and the Omicron variant.

They’re also trying to determine the effect of vaccines. “We hoped long-term effects after Omicron would be milder, but it doesn’t look like they are,” Cox told Aftenposten. Ailments suffered long after Covid infection include coughing, excessive fatigue, shortness of breath, headache and trouble concentrating. Many also suffer chest pain, rapid heart rates, reduced physical capacity, depression and trouble sleeping.

***”Corona is not over,” warns Norway’s public health institute FHI, just as hundreds of thousands Norwegians took off on Easter holidays in 2023. FHI reported that the number of hospitalizations tied to the virus had more than doubled during the past five weeks, and infection is on the rise. “The Covid-19 epidemic is increasing,” wrote FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) in its weekly report released on March 30. “Surveillance of traces of the virus in sewage water has shown a considerable increase through February and March.”

Cases of other respiratory infections among the public were showing a weaker rise, and hospitalizations tied to them are stable. “The Easter holidays can help contain the spread of Corona (because so many people will be away from school and work next week), but further development is uncertain,” FHI wrote. The thousands of people passing through airports, flying and taking trains can contribute to more spreading.

Only 57 new hospital admissions had been tied to the Corona virus during the first week of February, the lowest number since the summer of 2021. The decline in serious cases boosted health officials’ belief that the previous wave of Corona-related infection was over. The hospitalizations had also fallen from 64 the week before, a significant decline from earlier this winter and last autumn, when Norway landed in another infection wave.

***Personnel at public health institute FHI are in crisis mode, but not because of the Corona virus itself. Many fear for their jobs because of state budget cuts that are now expected to eliminate 226 full-time positions at FHI during the course of the year.

FHI’s highly respected director, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, has been warning that the cuts will have consequences. After helping get Norway through the Corona crisis itself, she’s now having to deal with the withdrawal of extra funding despite additional assignments and inflation that has greatly increased costs.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported last week that several FHI researchers have already accepted severance packages or retired, while many temporary employees have resigned. Nearly 40 risk being laid off.

***Three to four new waves of the Corona virus may still sweep over Norway this year, warns the Norwegian state public health institute FHI. Researchers think the Corona pandemic will enter a new phase 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.

***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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