Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist is optimistic that requiring travellers to take a PCR test before departure to the country along with a test at the border will be enough to stop infections from crossing the border and eliminate the need to quarantine travellers. All individuals arriving in Iceland from abroad must currently undergo a test at the border, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test.
As of tomorrow, travellers will be required to present a negative PCR test certificate in addition to the required five-day quarantine and double testing. Authorities hope the measure will lead to fewer travellers testing positive at the end of the five-day quarantine, therefore making it possible to lift quarantine requirements for travellers from May 1. From that date, Iceland is expected to adopt a colour-coded approach to border restrictions, where travellers from countries with a “green” rating would be exempt from quarantine upon arrival.
Iceland has been successful in containing the pandemic locally: and no domestic cases have been reported outside of quarantine since February 1. Authorities expect to relax domestic restrictions, which currently cap gatherings at 20 people, as early as next week. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist, however, stated he was “almost certain” that the virus was still present in the community and any loosening of restrictions would proceed very slowly to prevent another wave of infection.
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases and 2 at the border. Total active cases: 26. 8 are in hospital and 9,658 have been fully vaccinated (2.6% of the population). New border regulations take effect in Iceland tomorrow, requiring all arriving travellers to present a negative PCR test before departure in addition to double testing and quarantine in Iceland.
The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers: “Things continue to go well for us.” The last active domestic infection diagnosed outside of quarantine was February 1. No one in hospital due to COVID-19 has an active infection, 8 are recovering from COVID infection and no one is in intensive care. Two were diagnosed at the border yesterday and 22 have been diagnosed at the border within the past week, 15 with active COVID infections.
Þórólfur goes over the new regulations that take effect tomorrow. Arriving travellers are required to present a negative PCR test administered no earlier than 72 hours before their departure for Iceland. The new regulations also permit authorities to place arriving travellers in government-run quarantine facilities (hotels) if they are carrying a more contagious variant of the virus or if they do not have access to adequate quarantine or isolation facilities.
The new border regulations will minimise the risk of new domestic infections within Iceland. We will also gain experience and knowledge of whether a second test after a five-day quarantine is truly needed, if travellers present a negative PCR test taken before departure. This information will be helpful when we start relaxing border restrictions (expected from May 1) and implementing the requirements for a PCR test pre-departure now will give us valuable information that will be useful later.
Next week, Þórólfur will present the Minister of Health with suggestions for further relaxing domestic restrictions. Þórólfur addresses discourse suggesting that Iceland’s border restrictions are the harshest in Europe and compares several aspects of Iceland’s regulations to those of neighbouring countries. Nine countries in Europe have an active ban on unnecessary travel, which Iceland does not. Travellers to many other countries in Europe are required to quarantine for 10 or 14 days, compared to just five days in Iceland. Iceland is one of only two countries in Europe exempting people who have already recovered from COVID-19 from tests and quarantine upon arrival. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason: In no way does Iceland have the harshest restrictions in Europe, and a case can even be made that they are among the most relaxed.
Þórólfur: At the same time as we’re protecting the border, we’re slowly but surely vaccinating the nation. We’re doing well but we must be careful. Early detection is key and now the number of people getting tested is dropping. Þórólfur encourages the public to get tested if they’re experiencing any symptoms at all, no matter how mild. Þórólfur cautions that it is almost certain the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still out there in the community and could possibly cause a new wave if we relax restrictions too quickly.
The panel opens for questions. When asked if new border restrictions are also intended to discourage Icelanders from unnecessary travel abroad, Þórólfur replies that Iceland’s authorities have for some time been discouraging people from unnecessary travel.
“When will we reach herd immunity?” We don’t know but Þórólfur hopes that our experience at the border will give us the data we need to figure out what border restrictions are necessary. Þórólfur: If a negative PCR test before departure and a negative test on arrival in Iceland are enough to keep infections from crossing the border, that would be great, and I’m hopeful that that is the case. Þórólfur declines to speculate on long-term vaccination schedules, he will only base his words on the distribution schedules already in hand.
One reporter notes that as more people are vaccinated, more are reporting side effects. Þórólfur responds that there has been no causal link found between symptom reports or deaths and COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland. Furthermore, death rates have not risen since vaccination began. It seems the AstraZeneca vaccine causes slighty more flu-like symptoms when the immune system is triggered but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from taking the vaccine, says Þórólfur.
When asked about the vaccination schedule for younger people outside priority groups, Þórólfur states that it will likely be a long time before healthy 35-year-olds will be vaccinated. There are several priority groups and people with underlying conditions that will be vaccinated first. Þórólfur says Iceland will receive doses for 45,000 people by the end of March. Frontline workers and those over 70 are the current priority. Around 40,000 should be vaccinated by the end of March.
“When will we be able to take down our masks?” Þórólfur says that is a good question and preaches caution in this respect. Þórólfur: Will Icelanders continue to use masks in the future? Will two-metre distancing become a given? The Chief Epidemiologist says changes to mask regulations will be among the last regulations to be relaxed. We must proceed slowly with relaxing restrictions. The third wave began in bars and gyms, says Þórólfur. We have classified those institutions as high-risk, as have other nations. We must proceed with particular caution when it comes to relaxing restrictions in these institutions.
When asked about the possibility of falsified vaccination or PCR test certificates, Þórólfur stated that such a prospect is worrying. Víðir stated that falsifying official documents is a crime and is subject to fines according to Icelandic law.
Þórólfur thinks the Janssen vaccine decision in March will bring good news, but it’s taking a little too long for his liking. Although he is sure European authorities have their reasons. Þórólfur states a vaccination calendar, intended to give various groups a better idea of when they will be offered COVID-19 vaccination, will likely be made public today.
When asked if Iceland was too late in responding to a spike in cases last year, Þóróflur states that the fact of the matter is that we know how the last two waves started, the third and most serious wave caused by two tourists who weren’t following quarantine rules. That shows the importance of having clear regulations at the borders. Since restrictions were revised last summer, no infections crossing the border have caused new waves of the pandemic. Þórólfur doesn’t find it useful to focus on possible mistakes, but rather focus on the general success we’ve had since the third wave, stopping several variants of the virus from entering the country and local community. Other European countries are now discovering the importance of good border regulations.
There is now increased surveillance of airport pick-ups since it was found that many were picking up friends or relatives at the airport, a breach of quarantine regulations. “New Zealand imposed harsh restrictions immediately after new domestic cases. Is that a possibility in Iceland if domestic cases come up?” Þórólfur congratulates New Zealand on their general success, but states that their approach is more extreme than Iceland’s. While we don’t currently have the same freedom as they do, if we experience a backlash, the restrictions won’t be as extreme.
Þórólfur won’t submit a memo for relaxed restrictions before the weekend. He would not disclose the nature of his recommendations but reminded the press that school regulations are about to expire and authorities must attend to them as well. The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next information briefing, scheduled for Monday, February 22 at 11.03am UTC.