Why Omicron has caused an increase in Covid-19 hospitalisations in Norway

The number of weekly Covid-19 hospitalisations in Norway is rising and will continue to do so, despite the now dominant Omicron variant being milder than other variants, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said Tuesday.

Somebody preparing a Covid-19 test.
The NIPH has said that the Omicron variant is leading to more hospitalisations, the NIPH has said. Pictured is somebody preparing a Covid-19 test. Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) has said that a recent trend of decreasing weekly Covid-19 hospitalisations has been reversed and is now on the rise.

“The big winter (Covid) wave is now starting, as expected, to result in more hospital admissions,” Preben Aavitsland, chief physician in the infection control division at the NIPH, told newspaper VG on Tuesday.

In mid-December, the number of weekly hospital admissions with Covid as the main cause peaked at 254, before dropping off rapidly as Omicron, which the NIPH has said is 73 percent less likely to result in hospitalisation, became dominant in Norway.

However, the number of hospitalisations rose last week for the first time since the peak in weekly admissions at the end of last year. Last week there were 135 hospital admissions, compared to 116 the week before.

Aavitsland, chief physician in the infection control department, said that he expects to see Covid admissions increase even more going forward.

“It is a moderate increase (last week’s numbers), but we expect more,” Aavitsland told VG.

Line Vold, director of the infection control department at the NIPH, explained to public broadcaster NRK that despite Omicron being milder than the Delta variant, the increase in hospitalisations was expected due to Omicron driving higher infection rates than the Delta variant.

“We have always pointed out that with high enough infection rates, we will see more admissions,” Line Vold told the public broadcaster.

Over the last seven days, an average of 16,816 Covid infections have been registered per day. The same average a week prior was 10,359, indicating a rising infection trend.

Vold also said that those admitted with Omicron were spending less time in hospital than with other variants.

“The number of days you spend in hospital with Omicron is shorter than with the Delta variant,” she said.

In a recently updated risk assessment of the Omicron variant, the NIPH said that it was expecting anywhere between 100 and 400 daily hospitalisations every day at the peak of the current infection wave. The NIPH has predicted that the current wave will likely peak at the turn of the month or in early February.

READ MORE: When will the current wave of Covid-19 infections in Norway peak?

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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.