COVID-19 in Iceland: Reason To Be Optimistic For a Good Summer, Chief Epidemiologist States

Þórólfur Guðnason

Side effects of the AstraZeneca and Jansen vaccine, the nation’s mental wellbeing, and the prospect of a relatively restriction-free summer were some of the topics covered at authorities’ COVID-19 information briefing this morning, beginning shortly at 11.03am. On the panel were Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson.

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

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on www.covid.is. Iceland reported 0 domestic cases yesterday and 5 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 80. 67,158 have received one or both doses of COVID-19 vaccine, 18.2% of the population.

Loosened domestic restrictions took effect in Iceland today, allowing swimming pools, bars, and gyms to reopen and doubling the gathering limit from 10 to 20 people. Víðir starts by talking about what lies behind the success: hard work and no shortcuts. “The success of the Icelandic nation over the past year has been great.” Víðir: “In order for that success to continue, we need to keep up the effort that has been effective so far.”

The numbers

Þórólfur goes over the numbers. We’re still seeing domestic infections, but the majority are in quarantine. The virus is certainly still in the community, however. No one tested positive yesterday of some 1,000 tests administered, which is a good thing. Since tightened restrictions took effect about 3 weeks ago, 90 people have been infected domestically, 70% of whom were in quarantine. In most cases, infections could be traced back to people breaking quarantine. Two people are currently hospitalised due to COVID-19, one in ICU.

We were successful in containing the group infections that emerged a few weeks ago, Þórólfur says. He is pleased about the relaxed domestic regulations taking effect today and hopes infections will continue to trend downwards, despite increased freedom. Increased surveillance of those quarantining at home has now begun and hopefully, this will mean fewer infections crossing the borders, Þórólfur says. Þórólfur compliments Red Cross staff and border officials for their work.

Vaccination efforts and side effects

Þórólfur moves on to vaccines: The majority of people vaccinated in Iceland have received the Pfizer vaccine but many have received the AstraZeneca vaccine as well. Þórólfur goes over the vaccine side effects, noting how rare the most serious incidents are. AstraZeneca will now be used for people 65 years and older and potentially in the future for people 60 years or older with no family history of blood clots. Icelandic health authorities looking into the possibility of using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for men younger than 60, as the reported serious side effects are more common among women. Icelandic health authorities are waiting for the results of further research before starting the use of the Janssen vaccine. To discussing thrombotic events (blood clots), Þórólfur points out that patients with COVID-19 (up to 20-30%) may develop such issues. About 0.1% of the US population experiences a blood clot annually while 0.3-0.5% of women taking the contraceptive pill experience a blood clot problem. It is important to keep this in mind, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur wants to maintain success domestically, keep infections from crossing the borders and slowly ease restrictions domestically.

The pandemic’s effect on overall healthcare and mental wellbeing

Alma takes over, discussing the effect of the pandemic on healthcare and diagnoses of other conditions. Alma states that despite a temporary dip, there has been no continuous drop in cancer diagnoses in Iceland during the pandemic. Alma hopes this is the final stretch of the pandemic and that solidarity and persistence can get us past the finish line. She notes that vaccinations are key to ending the pandemic and the sooner everyone gets vaccinated, the sooner we can get back to normal. She’s noticed more discord in the community lately but polls still suggest that the majority of people have a feeling of solidarity and are doing their best to keep up infection preventions. Alma encourages the public to show compassion for people in different situations with different opinions. “It’s healthy for our own mental wellbeing to show empathy and kindness.”

Questions from reporters

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked if Denmark is not using their share of AstraZeneca vaccines whether they’re available for purchase. Þórólfur does not believe that is a practical option, Danes are storing the drug for possible future use.

The Directorate of Health continues to collect data on the nation’s overall mental wellbeing. The data will be used to respond as necessary. Research suggests that we’re in pretty good shape so far but the longer the pandemic lasts, the higher the risk is of the situation affecting people mentally.

Þórólfur is asked why we’re not using the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines when common medication such as the contraceptive pill has a higher risk of the same or similar serious side effects? Þórólfur states that authorities are holding off on administering the Janssen vaccine to wait for further research and using the AstraZeneca vaccine for people less likely to be at risk of potential serious side effects. He does not expect the wait to be long. Þórólfur: We only took a brief pause in using the AstraZeneca vaccine while we waited for more information (about a week). We are now using all of the AstraZeneca doses we receive. Short pauses should not affect our vaccination efforts overall, says Þórólfur. Alma adds that the rare side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine are more life-threatening than the similar side effects associated with the contraceptive pill.

Þórólfur is asked about his opinion on Danish authorities’ decision to cease the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Þórólfur replies that they are in a different situation than Iceland. He speculates that caution against damaging the public opinion of vaccines might play a part.

What can we expect this summer? Will there be large gatherings, festivals, can we go abroad? “The summer will be good!” both Víðir and Þórólfur exclaim. Þórólfur: We haven’t heard from meteorologists but the future looks bright when it comes to vaccination efforts. There’s every reason to believe that we will ease restrictions considerably with more widespread vaccination.

If we compare restrictions implemented during this wave to restrictions in previous waves, we reacted earlier now than we did before, Þórólfur says. Þórólfur: Though I can’t prove it, I am convinced that the restrictions implemented three weeks ago prevented more group infections. It takes time for a big wave to get going but I am sure it would have happened. When asked why healthcare authorities reacted differently and quicker this time, Þórólfur states that they’ve learned from experience and he believes acting quickly prevents group infections from leading to widespread domestic infections. Alma adds that the fact that this time around we were dealing with the so-called British variant also played a part.

Víðir closes the briefing by encouraging everyone experiencing symptoms to get tested. “Solidarity is the only way and solidarity is the best way to avoid infections.”

 

Reykjavík to Cap Speed Limits at 50km/h

driving in reykjavík

Speed limits will be lowered to 50km/h throughout Reykjavík according to a motion approved by Reykjavík’s Planning and Transportation Council yesterday. Most streets in the city will have a speed limit of 30-40km/h. The motion does not affect arterial roads managed by the Road and Coastal Administration such as Miklabraut, Sæbraut, or Kringlumýrarbraut.

Aim to Improve Traffic Safety

The goal of the change is to promote improved traffic safety and prevent serious accidents. Per a notice from the City of Reykjavík: “The lower the speed of a vehicle, the easier it is for the driver to prevent an accident, because in the time it takes to react to an unexpected event, the faster the speed, the longer the distance travelled. Traffic speed is therefore a very important variable in any discussion of traffic safety.” Reducing maximum speed limits should not only help prevent accidents, but reduce the severity of accidents that do occur, according to the notice.

Lowers Noise and Pollution

The notice suggests implementing the measures over a five-year period, which is expected to cost ISK 240-300 million ($1.9-2.4 million/€1.6-2 million). Besides improved safety, lower speed limits are expected to have other positive impacts, including a decrease in traffic noise and pollution. A recent Icelandic study found that vehicles created up to 40% less particulate pollution at lower speeds. Particulate pollution affects air quality in Reykjavík and elsewhere in Iceland, particularly in the spring time when weather is dry and many vehicles are still using studded tires.

Not Expected to Cause Traffic Delays

According to the City of Reykjavík, lower speeds will not lead to heavier traffic: “The maximum traffic capacity of the street system and delays around rush hour are usually determined by the capacity of intersections, light controls, and other traffic. The reduction of the maximum speed is not expected to have a significant effect on delays during rush hour, as at those times traffic lights and other traffic will have a greater effect on the actual speed than the maximum speed limit.”

 

Reykjanes Eruption Site Closed to Visitors Today

Search-and-rescue volunteer monitoring the Geldingadalur eruption

The Geldingadalir eruption site in Southwest Iceland will be closed to visitors today due to weather. Suðurnes Police announced the closure on their Facebook page yesterday. Up to 41mm of rain and wind speeds of up to 20 metres per second are expected at the site.

“It’s clear that in such weather conditions as can be expected tomorrow that all routes, whether hiking trails or emergency routes for response crews, will be one big mire and therefore it could prove difficult for responders to respond to emergency calls and monitor the area,” the notice stated.

A decision has yet to be made on whether the area will be reopened tomorrow.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Swimming Pools and Bars Reopen

sundhöll

New domestic regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 take effect in Iceland today, a slight relaxing from the regulation of the past three weeks. The general gathering limit has been doubled from 10 to 20, while gyms, bars, and swimming pools are permitted to reopen. The relaxed domestic restrictions, recommended by the country’s Chief Epidemiologist and approved by Iceland’s cabinet on Tuesday, will remain in effect until May 6.

The main changes that took effect today are as follows:

  • Gyms and pools are permitted to reopen and operate at 50% capacity.
  • Sports competitions and athletic activities with or without contact will be permitted among adults and children. The maximum number of adults in such activities is 50. Children are subject to the same gathering limits as in school activities. Athletic activities can host up to 100 seated guests.
  • Performing arts activities, including choral activities, are permitted with up to 50 performers and maximum 100 guests in each separate section.
  • All shops can accept up to 5 guests for every 10 squared metres of space up to a maximum of 100 people, in addition to 20 employees in the same space.
  • Nightclubs, pubs, and slot machine venues may operate under the same conditions as restaurants. They must close by 9.00pm.
  • Driving and flight lessons are permitted to restart.
  • The general distancing rule for schools will be reduced from two metres to one metre. Preschool and primary school children will be permitted to engage in sports and recreational activities.

Iceland currently has 83 active cases of COVID-19 and one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. Two patients are currently in hospital due to COVID-19. A total of 67,158 have received one or both doses of COVID-19 vaccine, 18.2% of the population.

No changes have been made to Iceland’s border regulations, which are in effect until May 1.