Fact check: Norway’s high vaccination rate prompted lifting of last COVID-19 restrictions – USA TODAY

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The claim: Norwegian Directorate of Health said reopening society did not lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections

Since celebrating the removal of their last remaining pandemic restrictions on Sept. 25, Norwegians have continued to enjoy decreasing COVID-19 case counts. 

While health officials largely attribute the decrease to the country’s high vaccination rate – 86% of adults have both shots – and note the country reopened gradually over several months, some have used out-of-context stats to suggest the reopening casts doubt on the effectiveness of lockdowns.

One post that pushed this narrative came from conservative blogger Peter Imanuelsen on Oct. 5, who claimed in a popular tweet that top health officials said “reopening society” didn’t lead to increased infections in Norway:

“One week after Norway removed all restrictions, covid infections fell 40%.

Reopening society in Norway did not lead to an increase in infections according to the Norwegian Directorate of Health.

The number of hospitalizations have DECREASED.

Why isn’t this success bigger news?”

The tweet was retweeted over 5,500 times. It also gained over 39,000 likes after the American page Allegiance to Liberty posted a screenshot on Instagram

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The stats are accurate. However, as one commenter wrote, “that’s only half the story.”

Experts say the lack of negative impact from lockdowns is a result of a high vaccination rate and reflects a continuation of the positive trends that prompted the incremental lifting of restrictions. And the lockdown didn’t end abruptly as this claim asserts; the final reopening Sept. 25 was the culmination of a four-step plan announced in early April.

USA TODAY reached out to Imanuelsen and Allegiance to Liberty for comment.

Reopening was gradual, included spike in cases

Imanuelsen’s tweet says, “Reopening society in Norway did not lead to an increase in infections, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Health,” suggesting loosening restrictions occurred abruptly in Norway. But the statement from a health official he references only refers to a small period of time, not the entire reopening period, during which cases spiked for several weeks.

Dr. Espen Rostrup Nakstad, assistant director of health at the Norwegian Directorate of Health, told USA TODAY that Imanuelsen was likely drawing from a statement Nakstad made to a major broadcast news outlet in Norway one week after the last restrictions were removed.

“We can state that the reopening weekend did not lead to a clear increase in infection, says assistant health director Espen Nakstad,” a snippet of NRK’s article reads, according to Google Translate. Nakstad reiterated to USA TODAY, however, that the Sept. 25 weekend referenced there was the last step in a broader reopening plan, one that had been delayed several months as Prime Minister Erna Solberg waited for vaccination rates to increase.

“We did not see any increase in (COVID-19 case) numbers following this last step,” Nakstad wrote to USA TODAY.

But Norway did see its most severe spike in COVID-19 cases earlier in the broader reopening process, data from the country’s Institute of Public Health shows. This came in early September, after the country had permitted residents to gather in larger groups, consume alcohol with less restrictions and resume domestic and international travel.

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The infections increased most among young people and were caused “by the end of the summer holiday and increased mingling, partying and leisure activities coinciding with the start of the autumn school and university term,” Dr. Preben Aavitsland, a senior physician at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and professor at the University of Oslo, told USA TODAY.

Tweet misleads by omitting vaccination numbers

The tweet says infections went down 40% after Norway’s last restrictions were removed, but that’s misleading.

The decrease wasn’t anything new. It was a continuation of a trend of declining case counts – a key part of why those final restrictions were lifted. This downtrend began in early September and was preceded by the country’s administration of the second vaccine dose to over a million people – roughly a fifth of its population – in the month of August, according to vaccination data from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

“There has been a steady fall in the number of confirmed cases in Norway as the pace of our vaccination program increased through August and September,” Nakstad told USA TODAY. 

That decline continued in the weeks following the removal of the last COVID-19 restrictions. The country had already removed many safety measures in the summer months, officials said.

Norwegian health officials said they largely attributed the sustained decrease in cases and slight decrease in hospitalizations after Sept. 25 to COVID-19 vaccines.

“We believe the favorable situation is mainly due to the high vaccination coverage,” Aavitsland wrote to USA TODAY in an email on Oct. 8.

According to Le Parisien, 90.6% of adults had received at least one dose of the vaccine on Sept. 24, when Solberg announced restrictions would end the following day.

As of Oct. 7, just under two weeks after the country’s final restrictions were removed, 68% of the Norwegian population and 86% of adults were fully vaccinated, Aavitsland said. In addition, 96% of people aged 65 or older had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

That high vaccination rate also contributed to low rates of hospitalization, which didn’t decrease significantly after the reopening, Nakstad said.

“ICU admissions have not changed significantly since early September, but there has been a slow downward trend in new admissions,” he told USA TODAY. “This is most likely due to the high vaccination rates among Norwegian aged 18 years and older, which currently stands at 91 percent (for the first dose).” 

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Currently, 57% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, compared to around 70% of Norwegians.

Our rating: Missing Context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that the Norwegian Directorate of Health said reopening society did not lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections. The claim is referencing what was actually the last step in a series of moves to reopen. The numbers were indeed good immediately after that, but that was simply a continuation of an ongoing trend of good numbers – which is what prompted the final step of reopening. The post also fails to note that a high vaccination rate is the primary driver of the improved numbers, according to the country’s leading health officials.

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