A sour wind blew through the streets of Tromsø on February 26 a year ago. As usual in winter, the city was filled with thousands of tourists who wanted to see snow, northern lights and whales.
At the town hall in the center of Tromsø, mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen was at a dinner with, among others, the rector of UiT Norway’s Arctic University. Municipal chief physician Kathrine Kristoffersen was in a job meeting.
I remember I was asked when I thought we got the first case of the coronavirus in Tromsø.
The virus they were talking about had been discovered in China around New Year. At this time, the World Health Organization was able to report 80,200 infections worldwide and 2,700 deaths. Most of them in China.
But the virus was approaching Norway now.
Italy had received more than 300 corona-infected, including a Norwegian student. Ten people were confirmed dead. It was reported cases of infection in Austria, Switzerland and Croatia. In Sweden had a man in his 30s passed a positive test in Gothenburg.
– We will probably get the first case here in a maximum of one month, Kristoffersen replied.
But one of the passengers who had landed at Tromsø airport the weekend before came all the way from Wuhan. The Chinese city where the pandemic started.
The lump in the stomach
At the town hall in Tromsø, the municipal chief was finished with the meeting when the phone rang. About the same time, the phone rang to Mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen.
The passenger who came from Wuhan this weekend had tested negative before the flight to Tromsø left. But now they had the results of a later test.
Then I felt the lump in my stomach.
Norway had received its first corona case. And Tromsø was the first municipality to have the pandemic served in its lap.
Municipal chief physician Kathrine Kristoffersen remembers how she reacted.
– I thought that was the starting shot. Now we have a lot to do in the future.
Pandemic plan from 2009
A few weeks in advance, the World Health Organization had declared the new corona virus an international health crisis.
Nevertheless, at this time there was still a lot of uncertainty about the extent of the virus.
Norwegian health authorities knew that the virus was significantly more contagious and led to more hospital admissions than the common flu virus. Little was known about the course of the disease and the treatment.
– We saw that the virus was approaching Europe more and more, and realized that it would come to Norway at some point, says communications manager at UNN, Hilde Annie Pettersen Kvalvik.
At Northern Norway’s largest hospital, they had already started preparations in January. But much was still not in place.
The hospital’s pandemic plan had last been used during the swine flu in 2009, and had not been completely revised since.
– We had probably imagined that it was first the capital and Eastern Norway that would be affected. So we were surprised that it was we who got the first case of infection, says Kvalvik.
Full emergency mode
Back at the town hall, the alarm had gone off and the municipal management had taken on full crisis preparedness mode.
There, the management was preparing for the worst case scenario. They worked hard.
– We had understood for a while that it was going to happen, but we did not know how long we had on us, says Kristoffersen.
“Fortunately” there had been a false alarm two weeks in advance, when two Swedes had received a false positive test result.
– So we had already had a kind of dress rehearsal, and were not completely on bare ground, Wilhelmsen says.
It had been several weeks since they had set up an emergency preparedness council. The organization of the infection control work had also been discussed.
But despite close cooperation with national health authorities, no one was left with any conclusions and there was a lot of uncertainty.
Espen Nakstad in the Norwegian Directorate of Health says that there were many questions about how the health service should treat those who became infected.
– For example, we did not know if it made sense to isolate people at home, or if they would get so sick that they should be in the hospital instead. We had a lot of that kind of discussions, he says.
In Tromsø, the infection control plan was outdated many years ago. Both staffing planning, corona telephone, test center and infection tracking team had to be in place.
– If an accident occurs, there are a number of things that must be done. But we have experience with that, we had absolutely no experience with this. So it was special, says Wilhelmsen.
– We groped a lot in the beginning.
– I shrugged a little when I said that
In Oslo, the National Institute of Public Health prepared for a national press conference on the coronavirus. It was uncertain whether they would mention Tromsø.
But in a funeral it was said that the infected lived in northern Norway.
With the mayor and the municipal chief at the helm, a press conference was planned in Tromsø later that evening. Together they discussed how to convey this to the population in the best possible way.
The municipal chief in Tromsø had little experience with press conferences of such scope. It was a large press corps that met her.
– Before the press conference, I had thought that I had to be careful about how I spoke due to privacy concerns.
Kathrine Kristoffersen was the first woman out. She explained the disease picture to the infected person. That the person had not been symptom-free for a long time. That they considered it so that the person had not been contagious on his trip to Tromsø.
But on a question from NRK journalist Sveinung Åsali, it slipped.
– It just plumped out of me, and I shrugged a little when I said that. But it didn’t really do that much, I think, says Kristoffersen.
NRK has tried to get in touch with the woman who became the first to test positive for covid-19 in Norway. She does not want to comment.
The ship that turned
The coming days, weeks and months should prove to be hectic for Kathrine Kristoffersen and the rest of the apparatus in the municipality. Tromsø municipality has not only had to deal with coronary heart disease in the population. In July, the Hurtigruten ship left MS «Roald Amundsen» to quay in the city with infection on board.
In addition, Tromsø is a so-called IHR port. Together with Bergen and Oslo, the port of Tromsø will be equipped to receive boats with a lot of corona infection on board. Therefore, several ships, both Norwegian and foreign, have docked in Tromsø with infected people on board.
– I must admit that I have been tired at times. Some nights I went to bed at two o’clock and got up around four o’clock, she says.
She tells of nights where she woke up in the middle of the night because she got an idea or came up with something she had to remember to do.
– Then there was no point in lying down and sleeping again, so I just cycled to work and started with what I was going to do. The head was in high gear, she says.
But she still remembers the feeling that settled with her on February 26 a year ago.
– It was the experience of a great responsibility.
The next day, the cruise ship “Saga Sapphire” was on its way to Tromsø, but the captain chose to turn around.
The coronavirus had come to Tromsø and Norway.