Norway told to expect sharp rise in Covid-19 infections as Omicron becomes dominant

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health said on Monday that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was now dominant in the country after Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre earlier said a sharp rise in infections was likely within the next month.

Pictured is downtown Oslo.
Norway's PM has warned the country to brace itself for a wave of infection in January. Pictured is downtown Oslo. Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash

Following daily infections over 6,000 in mid-December, the number of reported Covid-19 cases in Norway has fallen somewhat over Christmas. As of Monday, the seven day rolling average for cases was 3,174 recorded infections per day.

However, Støre said on Monday that the nation should brace itself for a wave of infections throughout January.

“We have low (infection) numbers compared to other countries. But we expect it (the number of infections) to go up sharply when people return to their normal work in January,” Støre told public broadcaster NRK’s Political Quarter show.

Regarding Covid measures, the PM said that the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) would continue to assess the effect of the current rules, introduced in mid-December, until the 14th of January.

“We must spend the ten days ahead of us evaluating and looking at what the NIPH says. Christmas is a period where it is difficult to measure, test and count coronavirus infections,” he said.

Støre would not be drawn on whether the current measures would be tightened, relaxed, or extended. These include a national ban on the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants and social distancing and face masks used in places such as shops and public transport.

READ ALSO: How Europe is ending 2021 with record Covid rates and new restrictions

He did, however, say that the government hopes mess testing of students could lead to upper secondary schools moving from red level, which sees measures such as much smaller class sizes or cohorts and partial online schooling being implemented, to green level, which is mostly standard teaching.

Camilla Stoltenberg, director-general of the NIPH, said she is apprehensive about the infection situation in the country heading into the new year.

“We are uncertain about the infection numbers because people behave a little differently in connection with public holidays and in general when it comes to both testing and social contact. It is difficult to say how Christmas will have turned out if we look 2-3 weeks ahead,” she told newspaper VG

On Monday, the NIPH announced that the Omicron variant was dominant in Norway. During the last week of 2021, the variant accounted for 65.4 percent of sequenced virus samples. The variant dominated in all counties except Adger. 

“The figures show a small increase in the Omicron variant through Christmas, but it is difficult to know whether these figures reflect the actual situation in the last couple of weeks,” Line Vold, director of the infection control department at the NIPH, said in a statement. 

In an earlier risk assessment of the variant, the health institute outlined a worst-case scenario whereby hospitalisations could top 5,000 by the end of January. In its more optimistic best-case scenario, the NIPH estimated that hospitalisations would reach around 130 patients. As of Monday, there were 325 patients in hospitals with Covid-19.

However, the NIPH has repeatedly cautioned that these are just scenario-based predictions rather than solid forecasts and that a lot of uncertainty remained concerning the spread of Omicron.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.