COVID-19 in Iceland: Restrictions Imposed to Combat Delta Variant Uncertainty

Kamilla Sigríður Jósefsdóttir infectious disease specialist

While there is data showing vaccinations prevent serious illness due to COVID-19, there is uncertainty regarding how the rapidly spreading Delta variant will affect Iceland’s majority-vaccinated population, Director of Health Alma Möller stated in a briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Authorities reimposed domestic restrictions in the country last weekend in response to rising infection rates. According to Alma, the goal of the restrictions is to protect the healthcare system as well as vulnerable groups.

Iceland reported 96 new domestic cases yesterday and the number may rise yet, as samples from the day are still being processed. Total active cases thus number at least 709, up from 60 just under two weeks ago.

Pregnant women in the Reykjavík capital area will be invited for vaccination at Suðurlandsbraut 34 this Thursday. Authorities encourages residents of Iceland returning from abroad to register for testing on heilsuvera.is, whether or not it was officially required in their case.

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

 

On the panel: Kamilla S. Jósefsdóttir Deputy Chief Epidemiologist, Director of Health Alma Möller and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson.

Yesterday’s numbers are up on covid.is. Iceland reported 82 new domestic cases (23 in quarantine) and 4 border cases. Total active cases: 695. Two are in hospital. 68.58% of the population is fully vaccinated. Pregnant women have been encouraged to get vaccinated due to rising case numbers. They will receive an invitation for the Pfizer vaccine in Reykjavík at Suðurlandsbraut 34 this Thursday, Vísir reports.

The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by reviewing the border regulations that are currently in force. He encourages all residents of Iceland and those who have a social network within Iceland to get tested upon arrival to the country though it is not an official requirement.

Kamilla takes over to review the numbers. There were 96 new domestic cases yesterday, a higher number than previously reported as some cases were added later. Kamilla reviews that quarantine regulations have been updated. The same regulations will apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated people in terms of the length of their quarantine. There are few cases with serious symptoms, which shows that vaccines are working in preventing serious illness among those infected with COVID-19, Kamilla says. Kamilla adds that pregnant women in the Reykjavík capital area will be invited for vaccination this Thursday.

Alma takes over. She discusses the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, spreading now in Iceland. It binds better to cells and multiplies faster. It is also believed to cause more serious illness and even more fatalities than other variants of the virus. She says that vaccinations are however very effective in preventing serious illness, including from the Delta variant [among those unvaccinated]. There is also published research on the effectiveness of Moderna vaccines against the variant.

We imposed domestic restrictions due to the uncertainty, Alma says. We do not know how many serious illnesses the Delta variant will cause in a majority-vaccinated country like Iceland. We are monitoring other countries that are at a similar place regarding vaccinations, especially the UK and Israel.

The reserve force in the healthcare system has been activated now for the third time and Alma encourages people with healthcare credentials who are not currently working in the healthcare system to register. There is also a reserve force for welfare services and a need for other types of workers in the healthcare system, such as in kitchens and to assist with testing. Alma concludes by saying there’s nothing else for us to do but continue onward, continue to gather information, particularly on the Delta variant, and do our best to protect those at risk and the healthcare system.

The panel opens for questions. “Is it necessary to tighten restrictions once more considering the numbers of cases being diagnosed?” It’s too early to say at this point, Kamilla responds. If more patients are hospitalised, then we will of course have to reconsider measures, says Alma.

“Europe will soon release a new COVID-19 map, what colour will Iceland be?” Víðir says according to the data it will be labelled orange.

Alma says that of course it is disappointing to be in the situation once more where we must impose restrictions but there is data from abroad showing that vaccinations are minimising the rate of hospitalisation, which is positive.

“Is it the Janssen vaccine that is not proving as effective as others?” It’s not fair to judge according to this current wave, says Alma, as in this wave it is mostly young people that are contracting COVID-19 and they are more active in society. More young people happened to receive Janssen so it is not accurate to assume that it is less effective than other vaccines administered in Iceland.

Alma says the short-term goal of restrictions is to curb infections and buy time but there is uncertainty regarding the effects of the Delta variant regarding how much serious illness it will cause, especially among vaccinated people.

“Is it not disappointing that our restrictions-free summer has been cut short?” Víðir says all crises are characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. Hopefully we will have more good times as many people did over the past few weeks.

“What’s the status of research on vaccinations for children? Is vaccination safer than infection with COVID-19 for children?” Kamilla says that depends on the situation in each country. We have been lucky in that there have been low infection rates so we haven’t been vaccinating all children even though the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for older children. There are certain side effects of course so we must proceed carefully, but considering that we are in a wave right now, it will likely happen that we will recommend vaccinations for children 12-15 at some point in the future.

As for younger children, the chances of serious illness from COVID-19 is low and there is not data on the effects of vaccination for that group as of yet. Much of preschool staff received the Janssen vaccine, and plans are in place to offer them a booster shot. We hope the timeline will be such that they will have additional protection when the fall season begins.

“There are four people in Iceland being monitored because they appear to have been infected a second time with COVID-19. Are they exceptions and have they been vaccinated?” Kamilla says that none of the four had been vaccinated. It has been a relatively long time since they were infected the first time. We know from cases abroad that there have been reinfections of COVID-19. Such reinfections are more common among people who have immune disorders, Kamilla says. Alma adds that reinfection is however generally rare.

“In the US and UK, they have 7-10 day isolation for people who are infected with COVID and we have 14 days. Are you considering shortening this period or offering testing to people to minimise the time they have to spend in isolation?” Kamilla: Testing doesn’t help in that context because people can test positive for a long time after infection. Regarding shortening the isolation period, we have done that before but we reversed that decision when the Alpha variant took over as symptoms lasted longer.

Víðir takes over to close the briefing. We still have the same goals: protecting vulnerable groups and the healthcare system. We will do everything we can to limit infections crossing the border and curb infections within the community so we can minimise restrictions. Keep washing your hands, use hand sanitiser, compartmentalise workspaces, social distance. Residents returning to the country from abroad can register for testing on heilsuvera.is. Víðir encourages them to do so even if testing is not officially required in their case. The briefing has ended.

Little Change in Reykjanes Eruption Activity

Geldingadalir eruption Reykjanes volcano

The ongoing eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula was visible from the capital area last night. Natural Hazard Specialist Böðvar Sveinsson of the Icelandic Met Office says the eruption has continued its recent pattern of low activity for 7-13 hours followed by higher activity for a similar length of time. Though it may appear to observers that there are new vents near the active crater, they are likely just holes connected to the main crater rather than independent channels, Böðvar told RÚV.

Lava from the eruption is mostly flowing eastward into Meradalir valley. Böðvar says it has likely been flowing in that direction for some time but has not been visible. This could be because the flow was underneath solidified lava, or because weather conditions have hampered visibility in recent days.

The eruption began on March 19, 2021 and has now been active for more than four months. Experts have stated that it is impossible to say how long it could last, but it could be years or decades. If the eruption continues for an extended period it could form a gently-sloping shield volcano.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Regulations on Mask Use Amended

mask use social distancing

Icelandic authorities released a notice amending the COVID-19 regulations yesterday. The regulations took force at midnight last Saturday, setting a 200-person gathering limit and one-metre social distancing, among other rules meant to curb the spread of infection. Iceland lifted all domestic restrictions on June 26, but imposed them again last weekend after a rise in cases attributed to the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2.

The notice outlines two changes to the regulations. Firstly, the gathering limit of 200 will apply to children born in 2016 or earlier. The second change entails removing a clause about ventilation, which “proved somewhat unclear and therefore difficult to carry out.” The clause stated that masks were required in businesses and services where one-metre distancing couldn’t be carried out or there was inadequate ventilation. According to the amendment, business operators must decide whether it is possible to maintain one-metre distancing on their premises, and if not, masks must be worn.

More information about Iceland’s current domestic restrictions can be found here.

Icelandic authorities will hold a COVID-19 information briefing at 11:00 AM today, which Iceland Review will live-tweet in English on our Twitter page.