Iceland Slows COVID-19 Testing Due to Shortage of Swabs

COVID-19

Icelandic authorities have been informed that a shipment of 5,000 testing swabs arriving to the country next week will be reduced to around 2,000. The Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated in a press conference last Friday that there were only around 2,000 of the swabs remaining in the country. Þórólfur says Icelandic authorities have all of their feelers out and are even researching whether the swabs can be manufactured in Iceland.

Fewer tested each day

As the number of swabs available shrinks, the number of coronavirus tests being administered in Iceland has decreased daily between March 18 and March 22. On March 18, the Icelandic healthcare system tested 420 individuals for the virus and deCODE genetics tested 1,408, for a total of 1,828. On March 22, deCODE did not administer any tests, and the Icelandic healthcare system administered 183. It is important to note, however, that despite the slower rates of testing in recent days, Iceland has tested a larger proportion of its population for COVID-19 than most other countries.

Þórólfur expressed disappointment regarding the reduced shipment, saying it was “bothersome” for the virology ward to receive mixed messages about how many swabs were on their way to the country. While the shipment is expected this week, there is a chance it could be delayed.

In a press conference today, Þórólfur stated that Icelandic authorities were doing all they can to ensure enough swabs would be available as the virus spreads. Testing had been limited to only those who have symptoms, and authorities were researching whether the swabs could be produced locally.

Part of a global shortage

Iceland is not the only country affected by a shortage of testing swabs. Demand for the swabs has grown around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread. The global shortage has affected testing in Canada and the United States as well.

When it comes to testing for COVID-19, not just any swabs will do. The nasal swabs used for the purpose are made of plastic shafts and synthetic fibres and must be long and thin enough to reach the nasopharynx – that is, the upper part of the throat, located behind the nose.

After the Avalanche

Westfjords avalanche

In January 1995, an avalanche hit the small town of Súðavík in the Westfjords. The town was decimated, and out of the 227 inhabitants, 14 people died. Some were rescued, including a teenage boy who spent 23 hours buried under the snow.

In October that same year, another avalanche hit Flateyri, a town of 350 people about a half an hour’s drive away. This time, 20 people were lost. The two avalanches were not only a blow to those affected, but to the nation as a whole. In the decades since, energy and funds have been spent building up anti-avalanche earthworks to prevent such disasters from happening again.

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

Icelandic Government Presents Economic Response Package to COVID-19 Crisis

Icelandic Government COVID-19 package

The Icelandic government presented an ISK 230 billion ($1.6bn/€1.5bn) response package to the COVID-19 crisis last Saturday. The package is equivalent to just under 8% of Iceland’s GDP, and its measures are intended to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by safeguarding the economic livelihood of individuals and businesses, protecting the welfare system, and boosting the economy.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, and Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson announced the first-phase response measures to mitigate the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference in Harpa last Saturday. As part of the measures, the government will take on up to 75% of salaries for struggling businesses, back bridging loans for companies, and defer tax payments, as well as accelerating public projects.

Government takes on up to 75% of salaries

In an effort to project jobs, part-time employees will be allowed to claim up to 75% of unemployment benefits in order to avoid job losses. This means that those who are under threat of losing their jobs can move to part-time hours as low as 25% of their previous hours and boost their earnings with Government support up to a combined level of ISK 700,000 ($4,975/€4,620) per month. The overall aim of this legislation is to encourage businesses to keep employers on their payrolls rather than lay them off. Self-employed and freelance workers are also eligible for this benefit.

Taxes postponed

Companies can delay the payment of taxes until next year and hotel taxes will be abolished until the end of 2021. Reduction in bank taxes and state guarantees on loans are aimed to encourage banks to lend to companies that require loans to continue operations.

Measures for households

During the next 15 months, individuals may withdraw a monthly sum from their voluntary pension savings to a maximum of ISK 800,000 ($5,680/€5,280). Families with children under the age of 18 will receive a one-time child benefit payment on June 1, 2020 of ISK 20,000 ($140/€130) or ISK 40,000 ($285/€265) per child, depending on their income.

Public investment

The measures also include an ISK 20 billion ($142m/€132m) investment initiative toward transport, public construction, technology infrastructure, research, and science in collaboration with municipalities.

The government will also create a marketing campaign to encourage Icelanders to travel domestically within the coming months. This campaign will include giving each Icelander 18 years and older a gift certificate valued at around ISK 5,000 ($35/€33) that can be redeemed at Icelandic hotels and tourism businesses.

A detailed English-language FAQ on the response package is available on the Icelandic Government’s website.

Icelandair Lays Off 240 and Reduces Employees’ Hours

Icelandair

Icelandair will lay off 240 employees and temporarily reduce the working hours of 92% of its remaining staff, RÚV reports. The measures are intended to increase the company’s ability to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total number of full-time positions at Icelandair Group averaged 4,715 in 2019. The wages of those employees who remain in full-time work will be reduced by 20%. The company’s executives will receive a 25% pay cut and the CEO and board members will receive a 30% pay cut during this time.

The company has temporarily closed several of the hotels in its nation-wide chain, both in Reykjavík and in the countryside, in response to a sharp reduction in the number of guests. Hilton Reykjavík Nordica, which is part of the chain, remains open. A staff member at the chain’s Mývatn location was diagnosed with COVID-19, leading to that hotel’s closure.

Icelandair stated that the company had recently explored all possibilities to reduce its outflow of capital, such as renegotiating agreements with suppliers and financers.

Iceland Tightens Gathering Ban to Minimise Group Infections

COVID-19 Press conference Þórólfur Guðnason Alma Möller V'iðir Reynisson

Icelandic authorities have announced a ban on gatherings of 20 people or more starting Tuesday, March 24 to slow the spread of COVID-19. This is a modification of the four-week gathering ban on groups over 100 people that took effect on March 16. The ban is in force until April 12.

Grocery stores and pharmacies may still allow up to 100 people inside at once, provided space allows for a 2-metre distance between individuals. Measures regarding schools remain unchanged.

Bars, gyms, and swimming pools close

In light of the new restrictions, authorities have ordered the closure of swimming pools, gyms, bars and clubs, slot machines, and museums as of midnight tonight (March 23). Operations and services that require close contact between individuals or risk close contact are also prohibited during this period. This includes sports clubs, hairdressers, beauty salons, and massage parlours.

All stores, public buildings, and other frequented indoor spaces must be cleaned as often as possible. Hand sanitizer must be available at all entrances and in more frequented spaces such as checkouts in stores.

The measures do not affect international airports, ports, planes or ships.

Some municipalities impose stricter measures

Two communities in Iceland had already taken stricter measures regarding group gatherings. In the Westman Islands, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 27 yesterday, all gatherings of more than 10 people had been banned. In the North Iceland municipality of Húnaþing vestra, no more than five people may gather together. There are five confirmed cases in the municipality.

The spread of the virus among groups in these two communities was among the reasons authorities decided to tighten the gathering ban, according to Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.