Coast Guard Helicopter Flies Again

TF-GRÓ Icelandic Coast Guard Helicopter

Air mechanics have completed scheduled maintenance for TF-Gro, the Icelandic Coast Guard’s rescue helicopter, last night, and it’s now ready to respond to emergency requests.

The Coast Guard air mechanics’ strike had held up the helicopter’s maintenance, so that since Thursday, Iceland’s emergency response teams had no available helicopter in case of an emergency at sea, a natural disaster, or emergency medical flights. The government passed legislation last Friday to end the strike and air mechanics returned to work Saturday morning. They immediately went to work on the aircraft’s scheduled maintenance to make the Coast Guard fully operational as soon as possible. The maintenance was completed last night, and the Coast Guard is once again able to respond to emergency requests.

The legislation stopped the air mechanics’ strike but wage negotiations continue. If their negotiations with the government aren’t resolved before January 4, the dispute will be settled in a court of arbitration.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Locals Advised to Form Christmas Bubble

Laufabrauð.

Iceland’s Ministry of Health will issue updated COVID-19 regulations today or tomorrow, set to take effect this Wednesday, December 2. At a briefing in Reykjavík this morning, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason declined to reveal details of the restrictions, though he did express his belief that there was not much room to relax the rules if Iceland wants to avoid another spike in cases. Iceland has seen growth in new domestic cases in recent days, following weeks of declining numbers. Growth remains linear rather than exponential, however.

Christmas Guidelines Issued

Authorities have now issued specific guidelines for the holiday season, both for Christmas gatherings and shopping. The guidelines emphasise what authorities called forming a “Christmas bubble,” as authorities put it at the briefing today: limiting one’s social circle during the holidays, as well as meeting online when possible. Shopping guidelines include having a list ready before heading out to shops, and buying online when possible.

When it comes to gatherings, authorities recommend sending invites well in advance so guests can limit their interactions leading up to the gathering. They also recommend avoiding buffets, using a mask when preparing food, and limiting unnecessary access to the kitchen. Locals are also reminded that they may not pick up travellers arriving from abroad at the airport. Further guidelines are available on the official COVID website.

Below is a lightly edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason (pictured below) and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Óskar Reykdalsson, Director of Health Clinics in the Reykjavík Capital Area.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. There were 8 new domestic cases diagnosed (3 in quarantine), 1 at the border. Total active cases: 187. 41 are in hospital and 2 in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur says guidelines for Christmas gatherings have been published on covid.is. The guidelines will be reviewed regularly.

Þórólfur goes over the numbers from yesterday. While the number of cases is growing, the growth is linear, not exponential so far. The percentage of those testing positive (among all those tested) is decreasing. All those who tested positive yesterday are residents of the capital area. We’re still dealing with the same three strains of the virus, no new strains are appearing even though several cases have been caught at the border. This shows the effectiveness of border testing, says Þórólfur.

Only five of the COVID-19 patients at the National Hospital have an active case of the virus. No COVID-19 patients are in hospital in North Iceland. The number of people in quarantine has grown in the past few days, which correlates with the number of cases diagnosed in the past days. We’ve been able to trace most of the infections and most of them are spread in workplaces and at small gatherings. This is yet another reason to ask the public to be particularly aware of gatherings during the coming weeks.

I’ve sent my recommendations to the Minister of Health and they are currently under review. It’s my opinion that there’s not much room to ease restrictions if we don’t want an uptick in infections, says Þórólfur. The updated regulations that take effect from December 2 should be issued by the Ministry of Health today or tomorrow. We have no new news of vaccinations but preparations are ongoing.

Óskar takes over. He wants to raise awareness of the indirect long-term effects of the pandemic. He mentions mental health and economic stress but also the reduced number of diagnoses of serious illnesses, such as cancer. While cancer diagnoses have gone down in other countries, Iceland’s healthcare centres haven’t had as extensive closures as in other countries. However, Óskar still urges people to contact their local health care centre if they are at all concerned about their health. It’s best to call first if you need assistance, but don’t hesitate to do so.

Óskar reminds the public of the most common symptoms of COVID-19: sore throat, cough, and fatigue. Contact your healthcare centre, or register for a test online and get tested. It’s better to get tested more often than not, even if your symptoms are mild, because if we catch the virus early, we minimise the risk of spreading it. Test results are usually available in a few hours but we remind people that if they go for a test, they should stay at home until they have their result and avoid contact with others. If you’re sick, even if it’s not COVID-19, stay at home, you don’t want to spread other illnesses either at this time.

Healthcare centres are preparing for different vaccination scenarios, depending on the amount of doses they get, says Óskar. They aim to administer the vaccinations as fast as possible, but will also pay attention to infection prevention at vaccination sites. Personal infection prevention is key, says Óskar: “It’s number 1, 2, and all the way up to 10.”

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur declines to comment further on his recommendations for updated restrictions until the government is ready to present their regulations.

Most new cases are being diagnosed in the capital area. Will regional restrictions be considered over Christmas? Þórólfur says he will not rule out regional regulations.

Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, now COVID-positive, has been criticised for having many visitors over a single weekend. How important is it that you as authorities follow the rules you issue? Þórólfur answers that it’s very important. They’ve always said that the virus is the enemy and infection shaming is not helpful, it can happen to everyone. While the pandemic response team follows their own guidelines, they have families whom they interact with as well, and when you interact with others, there’s always a risk of infection.

When asked about the predictability of the authorities’ actions, Þórólfur states that he’s sympathetic to the plight of people trying to plan ahead, but unfortunately the virus’ trajectory is not predictable and he won’t provide false hopes in that respect.

Is there a reason fewer people are getting tested? Óskar says he hopes it is because fewer people are experiencing symptoms. It is clear that fewer people seek out testing over the weekend. It’s so important for the community that people get tested as soon as they suspect even minor symptoms so that cases are caught early, says Óskar. Óskar stresses that people should seek out testing no matter the day of the week.

When asked again about Víðir’s infection and the people who visited his home, Þórólfur addresses the basic guidelines of infection prevention regulations: a gathering limit of 10 is in effect and the two-metre rule. We’re not asking everyone to stay at home and not meet a single person, that would be a lockdown. We’re asking people to maintain personal hygiene, disinfect surfaces frequently, and social distance, as well limiting gatherings to 10 people. If people stick to those rules, there’s still a risk of infection but it’s minimal. It’s a problem when people don’t follow these basic rules.

Þórólfur is asked about gathering rules in other countries. He says that every country is tackling this differently and nobody knows the perfect way to deal with the virus. The most important thing is to stick to the rules in place.

How many people are allowed in a “Christmas bauble?” are family Christmas parties out of the question? Þórólfur underlines the regulations in place (2-metre rule, 10-person limit, mask use when distancing cannot be maintained). There are safe ways to celebrate Christmas.

When asked about the possibility of opening swimming pools before Christmas, Þórólfur declines to comment until the Ministry has presented the updated regulations.

Is it acceptable to attend several 10-person gatherings over a single day or several days? Þórólfur says that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the infection prevention guidelines.

Rögnvaldur ends the briefing by underlining the importance of personal preventative measures such as hand washing and disinfection.

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.

Iceland to Prioritise Healthcare Workers, Elderly in COVID-19 Vaccination

Healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be prioritised access to a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available in Iceland. The Minister of Health has confirmed regulations defining ten priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination. Children born in 2006 or later will not be vaccinated unless they belong to risk groups.

The priority groups were defined in consideration of the World Health Organisation’s recommendations as well as perspectives that have emerged in neighbouring countries. Emphasis is placed on healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. The groups are prioritised in the following order:

  1. Healthcare workers and other employees that work in the emergency wards of the National University Hospital in Reykjavík and Akureyri Hospital in North Iceland.
  2. Healthcare workers and other employees of the National Hospital’s COVID-19 ward and inpatient ward as well as comparable wards at Akureyri Hospital; healthcare workers and other staff at health clinics as well as those who administer COVID-19 tests; and staff at nursing homes and retirement homes.
  3. Residents of nursing homes, retirement homes, and hospital geriatric wards.
  4. Licenced EMTs and paramedics that work in ambulance services; Coast Guard staff that work in the field; firefighters that work in the field; prison wardens; and police officers that work in the field.
  5. Other healthcare staff that have direct contact with patients “and require COVID-19 vaccination according to further decisions by the Chief Epidemiologist.”
  6. Individuals 60 years of age or older. Those who belong to this group and are also inpatients at healthcare institutions will be given priority.
  7. Individuals with underlying chronic illnesses that belong to particular high-risk groups for COVID-19 as further determined by the Chief Epidemiologist.
  8. Staff of preschools, primary schools, and junior colleges. Community and welfare service staff that have direct contact with users, including those that provide in-home services.
  9. Individuals that are vulnerable due to social or economic factors and are at particular risk.
  10. All others who wish to be vaccinated against COVID-19 according to further decisions by the Chief Epidemiologist.

The first five groups on this list number around 20,000 individuals, according to RÚV.

Several Vaccines and Access for Everyone

Vaccination will be free of charge. The Chief Epidemiologist is responsible for further prioritisation within each group and can also make exceptions to the regulations outlined above, but must provide reasoning to the Health Minister.

The Chief Epidemiologist is also responsible for determining which groups receive which vaccine. It is likely that locals in Iceland will be vaccinated using several different vaccines. The Icelandic government has made a deal with AstraZeneca to purchase the COVID-19 vaccine the company is developing, and will have access to other COVID-19 vaccines currently in development through the European Union. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated that Icelandic authorities also have the option to negotiate with vaccine developer Pfizer. In a briefing in Reykjavík last Thursday, Þórólfur stated Iceland should have access to enough vaccines for everyone. He added that there was as of yet no definite information on when a vaccine would be available in Iceland.

No Church Services This Christmas

Religious services around Christmas will be in a different format than usual due to the pandemic, RÚV reports. Bishop of Iceland Agnes M Sigrðardóttir does not think it likely that people will be able to attend mass in person on Christmas Eve.

Iceland’s churches were empty yesterday, on the first Sunday of the Advent. Due to gathering bans and social distancing, no Sunday services were planned, a situation that will likely continue throughout the Advent.  “I can’t see any changes, considering the state of the country and the rest of the world, that will allow us to hold mass in the churches,” Agnes told RÚV.

While church attendance at Sunday services is generally low and the percentage of the nation who are members of the National Church is steadily decreasing, Christmas Eve church services are a popular affair, and churches are usually busy with events and concerts throughout December. Instead of asking congregations to gather in churches, the Church of Iceland has been looking for ways to offer their services in a way that complies with infection prevention rules. “Instead of the people coming to church, the church is trying to come to the people,” said Agnes.

Minister of the Reykjavík Independent Church Hjörtur Magni Jóhannsson is facing the same predicament. “We try to solve it by streaming the services. It’s different and not what we’re used to but Christmas is the festival of lights and we’re trying to see the light in all of this.”

Davíð Þór Jónsson, parish minister of Laugerneskirkja in Reykjavík is also seeking out ways to keep up religious services during the advent. “We’ve recorded short services that we broadcast online, and I’ve also created virtual confirmation classes.” In addition to online activities, some parishes are considering open-air services during the Advent, if weather conditions allow. “I assume we’ll try to do something outside the church on Christmas Eve, a choir performance or a short service,” says Davíð.

Even if no one attends the services except for the Organ player and a recording technician, church staff believe they’re reaching their congregants and even some new faces. “We started doing online services last spring, but this time around, we put more effort into it. We’re working with a recording technician who’s helping us with the sound in particular,” a minister in Akranes told Landinn. They’re happy with the reception, even hoping to continue the online services once the churches open again. “We’ve been very well received, but we do hear that people miss coming to their church.”

Online church services are not the only thing different about this year’s advent. Usually, the mayor lights the lights on the city’s official Christmas tree during a popular family event on the first Sunday of the Advent. Due to gathering bans, there were no crowds yesterday when Hákon Örn Steen Bjarnason, a young boy of Icelandic and Norwegian descent turned on the lights, with the help of Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson. Since 1951, the city’s Christmas tree has been a gift from the city of Oslo, although these days, the actual tree comes from Heiðmörk forest on the outskirts of Reykjavík.