At a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s health authorities celebrated the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic domestically. The country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated it may be possible to loosen restrictions earlier than the planned date of February 17, though it would depend on numbers staying low. Þórólfur emphasised, however, that the nation must proceed with caution and relax restrictions slowly to avoid another local outbreak.
Iceland has reported 11 new domestic COVID-19 infections over the past week, all of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Total active infections have been dropping steadily and currently number 47. With an incidence rate below 20, Iceland is doing much better containing the virus than any other country monitored by the ECDC.
Iceland’s border regulations – which implemented PCR testing for arriving travellers last June and recently made double testing mandatory – has played a large part in containing the pandemic locally, the Chief Epidemiologist underlined. While 450 different strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been diagnosed at the borders, just 13 have been diagnosed domestically. The success of Iceland’s border measures has prevented the need for fully closing the borders, according to Þórólfur.
Below is a lightly edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Deputy Head of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 2 new domestic cases (both in quarantine), and 6 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 47. 17 are in hospital and 4,820 have completed vaccination.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts the meeting by mentioning Iceland’s success in containing the pandemic but warning against complacency. It only takes one infection to start another wave. Rögnvaldur says authorities have seen indications the public is relaxing infection prevention practices more than warranted and urges the public to consider their plans for the coming weekend and ask themselves if their plans are something they can be proud of after the fact.
Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. There were two domestic infections, both in quarantine. For the past few days, plenty of people have gotten tested and he thanks the public for responding to authorities’ appeal to get tested if you experience symptoms. Fewer people have tested positive at the border recently, and fewer passengers are arriving. Þórólfur: In conclusion, we’ve had success in keeping the pandemic contained. In the new year, 90 people have tested positive for the virus in Iceland, most in quarantine at the time. 48 have tested positive for the British strain of the virus, 8 domestically, but all domestic cases were in close contact with people testing positive at the border and this viral strain hasn’t yet spread domestically. There have been no documented cases of the South African and Brazilian strains. While Þórólfur is grateful and appreciative of the nation’s success at keeping the virus at bay, he states that he is not yet considering relaxing restrictions before current restrictions expire on February 17. “We must proceed very carefully when it comes to relaxing restrictions.” Restrictions are constantly being re-evaluated and authorities will continue to monitor the situation closely and make changes as they see fit.
Around 56,000 adults have arrived in Iceland since border testing was implemented in August and 97% of them have undergone at least one test upon arrival. Þórólfur emphasises that border testing has been incredibly effective in helping Iceland contain the pandemic locally. Þórólfur: Until now, we’ve managed to keep the UK strain from spreading, one that’s proved destructive in other countries. We know what we have to do to keep the pandemic at bay and we have to use that knowledge and apply it to our daily lives. We can’t let the pandemic spread with abandon once we’re so close to achieving widespread vaccination, says Þórólfur.
The panel now opens for questions. Þóróflur is asked whether there is further news of the Pfizer negotiations but he has no new details to disclose. Icelandic authorities have offered the country as a testing ground for vaccine research, and consider it a good location for a study on if and how the virus spreads in an area with widespread vaccination, as well as how many need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Other questions a study could answer: can those who have been vaccinated transmit the virus and infect others? How does vaccination affect different viral strains? Is further research on side effects and allergic reactions possible?
Þórolfur is asked about people who have recovered from the virus and asked if they can still be contagious. He answers that no such information has been confirmed, that is not in line with how most other viruses behave and he would take such information with the utmost scrutiny. Þórólfur: There’s no evidence to suggest that people who have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and recovered can carry the virus and spread it.
Þórólfur states that it’s likely that the British, South African and Brazilian strains of the virus are more contagious, but there is no evidence as of yet that they are more deadly. Pfizer has announced that their COVID-19 vaccine protects against the British and the South African strain. We don’t know as much about the Brazilian strain, says Þórólfur. We’re being very careful because of the British strain of the virus. We’re detecting it at the border so we’re at risk and we want to avoid a wave like the countries around us have experienced.
The restrictions we’ve put in place since last summer have been very effective at keeping the virus from crossing our borders. Other countries have not imposed such restrictions until now. Other countries have decided to close their borders entirely: what is the justification against doing so in Iceland? Þórólfur says Iceland’s border regulations have been very effective in preventing cases from entering the community from abroad. Other countries have not had such measures in place since last summer, as Iceland has, and are thus reacting more drastically now such as by completely closing their borders. They should have implemented restrictions earlier to avoid the need for harsh restrictions now. Iceland has shown that border measures are very important in preventing the spread of COVID-19. There is not necessarily any reason for us to close our borders now. We have a good system in place for preventing the spread of the virus.
Þórólfur says it’s a good possibility restrictions will be relaxed earlier than February 17. Asked for timeframes and details, Þórólfur states that he’ll give the same reply he’s given often before. There are many factors to consider and nothing is certain yet. He does state that if we’re still seeing as few infections next week as we are seeing now, he will consider relaxing restrictions further, but it will have to be done slowly so as to avoid a new wave of infection.
Þórólfur is again asked about border closures, and if Iceland being an island is an important factor to consider. He replies that the restrictions at the border have proven effective, as data shows, and he sees no professional or scientific reasons for closing the border fully.
We’re still at a code orange (in terms of virus risk level), will that change and will it change regionally? We’ll probably have the same codes for the whole country unless there are major changes.
Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing. “Þórólfur and I have a serious tone because this is a serious matter but we still have cause to celebrate.” We should enjoy the things we’re able to do while still continuing to be careful. Don’t travel abroad unless absolutely necessary, follow the rules and wash your hands frequently. Use masks where you can’t keep a distance of two metres.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing, scheduled for Monday, February 1.