COVID-19 Testing at Keflavík Airport Feasible, But Challenging

Keflavík airport

Iceland’s Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir says authorities will be able to announce next week whether Iceland will in fact reopen its borders next month as planned, RÚV reports. The Icelandic government’s current 14-day quarantine regulations for all travellers arriving in the country are set to be waived on June 15, with COVID-19 tests provided at the airport for arriving passengers. There remain, however, many unknowns regarding how the tests will be carried out and funded.

Testing or quarantine

On May 12, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced the decision to open the country’s borders no later than June 15, giving arriving passengers the option to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival instead of undergoing the 14-day quarantine currently required of all who arrive in Iceland. Travellers would also be able to eschew quarantine by presenting a recent certificate proving they have tested negative for the disease.

The tests conducted at Keflavík airport would reportedly be processed in Reykjavík the same day, with results available a matter of hours after passengers’ arrival. Those who test negative for COVID-19 would be permitted to travel freely, while those who test positive would be required to go into isolation. Foreign tourists would be encouraged to download Iceland’s official contact tracing app in case an infection does come up during their trip.

Testing capacity must be increased

The team managing the reopening has submitted a report on the initiative, which is now being reviewed by Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, who will then submit his comments to the Minister of Health. According to the report, an important factor in minimising the risk of opening the country is increasing the National University Hospital’s testing capacity. The hospital’s virology department can currently process around 500 samples per day, equivalent to around two and a half planes’ worth of passengers. Though plans are in place to increase this capacity, it requires ordering new equipment, adapting the facilities, and training additional staff, all of which will take time. The department estimated it will take at least until the middle of July to double this capacity to 1,000 samples per day.

DeCODE genetics, a Reykjavík-based biomedical company, has been conducting COVID-19 testing of the general population. Svandís says the government is considering contracting the company to assist with the testing of arriving passengers in order to increase testing capacity.

Staffing will be a challenge

CEO of the National University Hospital Páll Matthíasson says that along with testing capacity, staffing will be a key challenge. The hospital usually reduces operations over the summer months as staff goes on summer vacation. “The fact is that our staff has done a fantastic job in this epidemic and is tired and we need to ensure they can take time off this summer. It is worth pointing out, of course, that as soon as the first illness comes up, even if it is not a serious illness, but only an infection, we need to respond very hard and prepare for a lot of action, not least during the summer vacation period when we are trying to rest our staff.”

Cost for testing may fall to travellers

Setting up COVID-19 testing at Keflavík airport will come with a significant price tag. The cost of each sample is projected to be under ISK 50,000 ($365/€330) and decreases as the number of samples taken increases. Thus, processing around 500 samples per day would cost ISK 23,000 ($167/€152) per sample. It has yet to be decided who will shoulder this cost, though it seems likely the government will pay for the first days of testing.

“These costs are partly the virology department equipment that we would need to address either way. However, I think, and we have discussed it and the Prime Minister has advocated, that at least the first steps be such that it would fall on the state, but then I think it would be fair to consider that when this starts up, after some days or something like that, then the cost would fall on passengers.”

Dig Through Landslide to Redirect Salmon River

A fishing association will dig up 350,000 square metres (3.8 million sq ft) of soil in order to redirect Hítará river, which was diverted by a landslide two years ago. RÚV reports the project will likely cost more than ISK 100 million ($730,000/€660,000), but the Hítará Fishing Association says the investment is worth it, as the river is one of the most lucrative salmon fishing rivers in the country.

In the summer of 2018, unusually wet weather caused an enormous landslide on Fagraskógarfjall mountain that completely blocked Hítará river. Roughly one kilometre (0.6mi) wide and 1.5km (0.9mi) long, the landslide is thought to be the largest that has ever occurred in Iceland. Hítará eventually carved a new trajectory, but an important former salmon spawning area in its old path is now either dry or underneath the landslide.

Ólafur Sigvaldsson, chairman of Hítará Fishing Association, says the now-dry area represents about 20% of the former Hítará. By digging a ditch through the landslide six metres deep and 18 metres wide (20ft x 60ft), the group aims to return the river to its old path. The association has applied for ISK 60 million ($440,000/€400,000) for the project from the Fish Farming Fund (Fiskræktarsjóður) but expects to pay the rest of the cost itself. Ólafur says compared to the financial loss to the association that the decline in salmon represents, the investment is worth it.