COVID-19 Information Briefing: Vaccinations And Natural Infections Might Allow For Relaxing Restrictions

Icelandic authorities’ gave a COVID-19 information briefing at 11 AM on the COVID-19 situation in Iceland following the recent surge in infections. On the panel were familiar faces: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson. During the briefing, the team revealed that despite the rise in infections, there hadn’t been a corresponding rise in hospitalisations, inspiring hope that widespread vaccinations paired with a wave of natural infections might boost immunity enough to relax restrictions soon.

Iceland’s COVID-19 numbers Dec. 28:
New cases: 825 (298 in quarantine)
Total active cases: 5,534 ⬆️
Hospitalised: 21 (6 in ICU)
14-day incidence rate per 100,000: 1,526.6 ⬆️
Fully vaccinated: 77% of population
Booster shots administered: 157,925 (42.7%)

The information briefing went as follows:

Víðir starts the briefing by sending his regards to the 13,000 people in isolation and quarantine. There’s a strain on testing and contact tracing teams, but they’re still holding on, breaking records every day over how many they can get to in a day. Digital solutions are proving successful and helping the team in their efforts. Víðir asks people to keep up their personal infection prevention, work from home, and avoid large gatherings, noting that the national church is setting a good example by cancelling their New Year’s ceremonies.

Testing capacity tested

Þórólfur takes over. He goes over the exponential increase in omicron infections. The growth results from increased omicron cases, but the delta cases tested every day remain steady at around 100 per day. Even though there were slightly fewer cases today than yesterday, it remains to be seen if we’ve reached a peak. The next few days’ numbers will tell. Very many tests were performed yesterday, more than 8000. Just under 7000 tests were processed yesterday, as the number of tests was well over the processing capacity. Some more positive cases might remain from yesterday. Þórólfur asks people for patience in waiting for their test results.

Vaccinations plus natural infections might allow for eased restrictions

Þórólfur states that most hospitalised people have the delta variant, but two have the omicron variant. Despite the surge in cases, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in hospitalisations, so hopefully, that means that omicron causes a milder illness. Þórólfur warns that it’s still too early to tell. The reason that serious illness is rarer than in other variants might be something to do with the nature of the virus or that widespread vaccinations are preventing more serious illness. Whatever the reason, widespread vaccinations paired with natural infections might boost the nation’s immunity enough for us to relax restrictions and slowly return to a more normal way of life. This should serve as an encouragement for everyone to get their booster shot as soon as they’re eligible.

Quarantine and isolation periods not excessive

Þórólfur mentions the new regulations in America regarding asymptomatic people, stating that their main objective seems to be to get people back to work as quickly as possible, raising questions about their infection prevention value. Þórólfur believes it prudent to wait and see but mentions that Iceland doesn’t have as strict rules as some other Nordic countries and has a shorter quarantine and isolation period than recommended by the ECDC. He believes it is not a good idea to cease contact tracing and quarantining, despite the strain on resources caused by the rise in infections.

He wishes everyone a happy new year.

Healthcare staff also experiencing quarantines and isolation

Director of Health Alma Möller takes over. In the weekly surveillance by the Directorate of Health, the situation at the National Hospital is becoming tougher. Healthcare staff catch the virus, get quarantined or isolated just like everyone else and it becomes harder to keep all departments staffed. While hospitalisations due to the virus haven’t increased in line with the number of infections, a group infection at the cardiac ward has led to an increase in hospitalised people with the virus. Even though people were originally hospitalised for other things, taking care of covid infected people requires protective gear and other safety precautions and increases workload for staff. Yesterday, four people were hospitalised and another four were discharged.

Hospital in a state of emergency

The hospital is now at its emergency phase, and management is working closely with the ministry of health and other institutions in the healthcare system. 21 people are hospitalised with covid-19, 18, with an active infection and three battling covid aftereffects. Alma states that the wave of infections might still result in increased hospitalisation, but they don’t know at the moment if those forecasts will materialise. Just under 6000 people are in the care of the hospital’s remote covid department, but increased automation and digital solution has helped to relieve stress. Most have little or no symptoms, 231 patients are colour coded as yellow, indicating an increased likelihood of hospitalisation and two are coded as red.

The National Hospital’s Immunology department which handles COVID test processing is under a great deal of strain and healthcare institutions in other pars of the country are also facing increased strain. Healthcare clinics and the after-hours clinic ask people with symptoms to get PCR tested before arriving, if their illness can handle the wait. All sick people will still be seen and treated and everyone requiring medical attention is urged to get the help they need. The After-Hours Clinic asks people to see if they can get their needs met at their local healthcare clinic during office hours, as their after-hours services are intended for cases that can’t wait. The government’s tracing app was updated recently but Alma reminds app needs to be opened and activated for it to work.

Alma wishes everyone a happy new year and reminds the to mind their personal infection prevention, and to get vaccinated and boosted.

Questions from the press

The panel is now open for questions from the press. Þórólfur is asked about what properties of the pandemic they’re looking for when assessing the state of the pandemic. The severity of illness and the strain on the healthcare system.

Mental health

Alma is asked about the mental health effects of the pandemic. According to the Directorate of Health’s data, it affects younger people more, with many experiencing anxiety. They don’t know how much of it is caused by the government’s restrictions or the pandemic, although research shows that people directly affected by the pandemic were hit harder.

Can viral sequencing shorten quarantine periods?

Þórólfur is asked if isolation or quarantine periods can be affected by which variant causes the illness. Þórólfur states that it’s a possibility but not very practical since viral sequencing results aren’t available immediately. He also states that it likely won’t be necessary if the omicron variant completely takes over. There’s always a possibility that a new variant will appear.

Alma adds that people are asking which variant they have, but they’re working on making that information available to patients.

Hospital capacity based on staff

Alma is asked about the capacity of the healthcare system, replying that the most worrisome threat is healthcare staff being affected. There are plenty of ventilators, 56 but they wouldn’t have the staff necessary to take care of 56 patients on ventilators. The hospital should be able to accept at least 30 COVID patients.

Hotel guests moved to make way for quarantines

With the surge in infections, quarantine hotels are filling up, and healthcare authorities are prioritising people for a spot based on need. If there’s no possibility of isolating in the home or there’s a person in the household with underlying conditions, people have a right to a quarantine hotel. But there’s a waiting list of 100 people. A hotelier moved guests from their hotel to accommodate the quarantine hotels, and the situation is improving, with more rooms in hotels becoming available after the new year when the tourists leave.

Early boosters don’t make sense

Þórólfur states that the current recommendation is that boosters are administered 5 months after the second dose. The best coverage happens when booster shots are administered 5-6 months after their second injection and giving it earlier might have slightly worse results. Statistically, fewer people with booster shots become seriously ill.

Asymptomatic people still infect others

Asymptomatic people might still have a great amount of the virus in them. Even if asymptomatic people might have a slightly less ability to infect others, they still pose a greater danger since they move more freely than people experiencing flulike symptoms.

Suicide rates high but not significantly so

Alma is asked about suicide rates. While suicide numbers for 2021 were high, they weren’t historically high. The small size of the population means that numbers fluctuate greatly between years. The numbers for 2021 won’t be final for a few months. There is an action plan in place regarding mental health efforts and funding was increased.

Children’s boosters not scheduled yet

Þórólfur states that booster shots for children are not yet on the horizon but that at least for the delta variant, children’s vaccionations prove much more effective than in adults. Hopefully, it will be the same for omicron. Þórólfur is asked about booster shots for teachers and if schools reopening after Christmas vacations should be postponed. No such decision has been made.

Publishing data on symptoms of people in isolation is not viable as the situation is liable to change over the course of a day.

Herd immunity on the horizon?

Þórólfur is asked about the possibility to let the pandemic rip and achieve herd immunity that way. He replies that widespread vaccinations paired with natural infections might lead to herd immunity. The problem is that there are people more sensitive to the illness and some unvaccinated people. He urges caution for the time being rather than having to regret something later.

Víðir closes the briefing by reminding people of what we’re trying to achieve. The goals are the same as they have always been, tempering the pandemic, gathering more information, protecting the healthcare system and sensitive groups with the hope to get back to normal soon.

Víðir thanks people for the unity and solidarity and wishes everyone a happy new year

MFRI Suggests a Total Ban on Langoustine Fishing

Iceland‘s Marine & Freshwater Research Institude (MFRI) has suggested a total ban on langoustine fishing in 2022 and 2023.

Langoustine numbers in the country‘s fisheries have been extremely low in the past few years. The size of the langoustine population has shrunk by 27% since 2016 and this year, the total catch of langoustine was the smallest ever recorded.

See also: Langoustine Numbers at Record Low

Because of the declining population, MRFI introduced significant fishing limitations on langoustine last year, which entailed a ban on fishing more langoustine than needed to maintain scientific research. If their new suggestions will be heeded, no lobster fishing will be allowed for at least two years to protect the population, not even for scientific purposes.

The MRFI has also suggested a ban on bottom trawling in defined areas in Breiðamerkurdjúp, Hornafjarðardjúp and Lónsdjúp, in order to protect the langoustine.

Langoustine may disappear from the Icelandic market

Langoustine is the only species of lobster that can be found in Iceland’s fisheries. The species is mostly caught in the fisheries off the south coast of Iceland, by companies based in Höfn, Þorlákshöfn and Vestmannaeyjar.  It is considered a delicacy in the country and is commonly eaten at Christmas and other festive occasions. Through the years, langoustine has been a popular dish at the country‘s seafood restaurants.

See also: Poor Langoustine Season Could Mean Restaurant Shortage

Scientist do not know what has caused of the decline of the langoustine stocks around Iceland. In an interview with RÚV, a deep-sea specialist at MRFI said that full recovery of the langoustine population would take at least five to ten years. He warned that if the langoustine population fails to recover, it may disappear completely from the Icelandic market.

Strætó Was Hit by Cyber-Attack

Strætó, the Iceland Public Bus Network, came under attack from hackers yesterday, RÚV reports. The company‘s web servers were hacked but the app was not tampered with.

Jóhannes Rúnarsson, the CEO of Strætó, said to RÚV that the incident had been reported to the Data Protection Authority, the Police and the Computer Emergency Response Team of Iceland. He added that the attack could have resulted in data leakage, but data hostage was unlikely. The attack is not believed to be connected to the log4j vulnerability.

According to RÚV, measures have been taken to prevent further data leakage and experts are currently analysing the situation. However, Strætó warns against sharing credit card info via e-mail with potential scammers.

District Court Confirms the Legitimacy of Mandatory Isolation

Héraðsdómur Reykjavíkur Reykjavík District Court

The District Court of Reykjavik has ruled that a family who were recently infected with Covid-19 and had to self-isolate for ten days without experiencing symptoms, were not treated unlawfully by the government, RÚV reports.

Earlier this month, the family of five were told to remain in a mandatory self-isolation for ten days after being infected with Covid-19. Since they did not have symptoms, they challenged the decision and demanded to be released from isolation. One of their arguments also regarded the accuracy of PCR-tests, which they claimed was questionable.

The District Court of Reykjanes has also ruled that ordering a man to stay in quarantine for 23 consecutive days was a legitimate action on behalf of the government, Fréttablaðið reports. The man had been in contact with infected individuals on two different occasions, and was therefore required to quarantine for such an unusually long period. The man challenged the decision on the grounds that according to domestic law, the maximum length of quarantine is 15 consecutive days.

Civil Protection Department Sends Warning Messages to All Travellers in the Mt. Hekla Area

The Civil Protection Department and the Police Commissioner in South Iceland decided on Monday to activate text messages that will be sent to those who enter a pre-defined area around Mt. Hekla.

A swarm of earthquakes began in Reykjanes peninsula on December 21. Although the seismic activity has slowed down for the past hours, scientists believe that there is still a chance of eruption, presumably near the site of this year’s eruption in Fagradalsfjall.

Mt. Hekla, however, is situated in the southern part of the Central Highlands and is a part of another volcanic system. According to the Civil Protection Department, measurements of expansion show high levels of magmatic pressure in the magma chamber underneath the volcano. In fact, expansion levels have been high under Hekla since 2006, which means that the chance of eruption has been consistent for some years now.

The volcano erupted in every decade from 1970 to 2000. Hence, an unusually long time has passed since the last eruption.

Mt. Hekla is a fairly popular hiking spot, and guided tours are offered in the area. Eruptions in Hekla usually happen without a warning, which means that evacuating the area before the event is problematic, if not impossible. This is why scientists have warned against unnecessary travel in the area for a long time.

The Civil Protection Department emphasises that there is nothing in particular that indicates imminent danger of eruption in Hekla. The threat has remained the same for some years, but the Department says that using technology to warn against potential danger is an appropriate way to communicate to travellers who might be unaware of the situation.