Norway health experts downgrade threat of COVID-19, express greater concern for upcoming flu season

In a typical season, around 900 people in Norway die and 5,000 are hospitalized because of seasonal flu. But this year, experts fear the number could be much higher.

Alex Anas Ahmed Calgary AB

From the onset of the global pandemic, Norway classified COVID-19 as a generally dangerous disease. However, the assistant director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), Geir Bukholm, said that could soon change.

Bukholm said the NIPH classifies COVID-19 in the same category as illnesses such as flu, common colds and the respiratory syncytial virus, according to The Local.

“This is because the vast majority of those at risk are protected,” Bukholm explained. "We are now in a new phase where we must look at the coronavirus as one of several respiratory diseases with seasonal variation."

In mid-September, the Ministry of Health and Social Care asked the NIPH to assess whether COVID-19 remained dangerous. While they haven't returned their findings yet, its assistant director confirmed they would downgrade the danger posed by the respiratory disease.

"Although the infection is still circulating, hospital numbers remain low. Thus, the coronavirus will not lead to a heavy burden on the health service," said Bukholm, adding that those who become infected and develop symptoms but are vaccinated will, in most cases, have mild cold-like symptoms."

However, Bukholm warned the pandemic was far from over despite now comparing COVID-19 to other common respiratory illnesses.

"The pandemic is not over as long as it exists globally and in countries where the vaccine coverage is still low. As long as the diseases spread throughout the world, there is still a pandemic," he cautioned.

Norwegian Health Minister Bent Hoie offered a glimpse at the country's outlook once he lifted public health measures. But he didn't provide a date for when that would happen.

Moreover, health experts said they were more apprehensive about the upcoming flu season this year than COVID-19 variants, warning that the country could see more deaths and patients hospitalized than in normal years.

Karoline Bragstad, a virologist at the NIPH, said, "We are probably more worried about the possible return of the flu than about any new coronavirus variants now through autumn and winter," adding the COVID-19 vaccines provide broad protection against the known variants."

This year's flu season concerns health experts as the strict infection control measures last winter aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 had the knock-on effect of dramatically reducing influenza cases in Norway. This means the population's herd immunity would be much lower than in regular flu seasons.

In a typical season, around 900 people in Norway die and 5,000 are hospitalized because of seasonal flu. But this year, experts fear the number could be much higher.

"If we get a strong spread of flu this winter, then we fear that it may become more serious than we are otherwise used to," Bragstad explained.

Espen Nakstad, assistant director of health at the Norwegian Directorate of Health, also raised concerns as the season's severity would depend on people staying at home when they are sick.

"The flu season will depend, among other things, on how good we are at staying home when we are sick. But, at the same time, we will also be affected by other countries in Europe and how good they are at the same thing," he said.

The NIPH ordered more than 1.8 million flu jabs this year, which will arrive in Norway in September and October. From October, municipalities will begin inviting people to flu vaccinations.

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