COVID-19 the Likeliest Explanation for Excess Mortality in 2022

From the night shift at the COVID-19 ward.

Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund believes that COVID-19 is the only possible explanation for excess mortality in Iceland last year, RÚV reports. Guðrún emphasised that vaccinations had in all likelihood reduced mortality and that the number of deaths was to be explained by a large number of infections.

COVID-19 deaths on the rise again

After a significant decline last autumn, the number of deaths due to COVID-19 has begun to rise once again; thirteen individuals died from COVID-19 in Iceland in January 2023, compared to an average monthly mortality rate of three between the months of August and October last year.

Yesterday’s RÚV reported that there had been an inordinate number of excess deaths last year, which suggests that twice as many people – or about 400 – had died from COVID-19 last year than previously thought.

Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund told RÚV that COVID-19 was really the only explanation: “There were excess deaths in 2022 at around the same time as the big omicron wave hit between February and March. And then there was another smaller wave in July, which was when the excess mortality rate rose again,” Guðrún remarked. “And there is no other explanation for these deaths other than COVID-19.”

As noted by RÚV, excess mortality also increased in other countries after waves of COVID-19 passed. Guðrún noted that the pandemic could also have had an indirect effect on mortality: “It could mean reduced access to the healthcare system in some countries, or some other societal trends,” Guðrún observed.

More deaths in January 2023 than in all of 2021

In 2020, there were 31 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, while in 2021, the number decreased to 8. Last year year, however, there were 211 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, but as previously mentioned, the deaths last year were probably closer to 400. The latest available data from the health authorities are from January, 2023, which indicate that thirteen individuals died from COVID-19 during the first month of the year. This number exceeds the total number of deaths for all of 2021.

As noted by RÚV, there were also excess deaths in January: 70 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, while deaths in January are, on average, usually around 60 per 100,000 inhabitants. Guðrún noted that around the turn of the year, there was a great number of covid infections. “But then there were also other infections, like influenza and RS.”

More infections = more deaths

82% of the population, aged five and over, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and more than 55% of the nation has been diagnosed with the disease. Given this, a reporter from RÚV asked why the number of COVID-19 deaths had increased last year.

Guðrún replied that a rise in the number of deaths could not be attributed to vaccinations. “On the contrary, I think the situation would have been much worse if there had been no vaccinations … the omicron wave was, of course, much bigger than others that had preceded it, and, as a result, more people got sick,” Guðrún remarked.

More Unhoused People Spending Majority of Year in Shelters

homelessness in reykjavík

The number of unhoused individuals dwelling in emergency shelters has increased. These individuals are also dwelling in shelters for longer than before, RÚV reports.

An inquiry from a representative of the People’s Party

As noted in a response from the Reykjavík City Welfare Council to an inquiry from a representative of the People’s Party, the number of unhoused individuals dwelling in emergency shelters for a large part of the year has increased significantly over the past two years. There were 317 people dwelling in the city’s shelters in 2020; last year, that number had risen to 390.

Discussions have begun between the City of Reykjavík and the Ministry of Health to find appropriate resources for this group.

“The city’s policy is that unhoused individuals requiring great, complex services should not stay in emergency shelters for more than three months a year on average. The trend has reversed in recent years, with the number of people staying in emergency shelters for more than 90 days having increased: up from 44 in 2020 to 76 in 2022. There has also been a significant increase in the number of people staying in emergency shelters for the majority of the year. In 2020, there were thirteen who stayed there for more than six months, while in 2022 there were 29.”

The welfare council’s response states that the government is currently looking for ways to respond to this development. It is often the case that those staying in emergency shelters need nursing care. Discussions are underway with the Ministry of Health to find these individuals suitable care.

A certain sign of a “lack of resources”

Last November, RÚV spoke to Svala Jóhannesdóttir, a harm-reduction expert and one of the founders of Matthildur (an organisation for harm reduction), who stated that the fact that people struggling with addiction were increasingly looking to parking garages for shelter showed “a lack of resources for the unhoused.”

The article noted that for seven hours a day, unhoused men had no shelter, with the parking garage on Vesturgata having become a popular site of injection for individuals struggling with addiction. The garage is adjacent to a health clinic, which hired a security guard after an employee was assaulted in the parking garage.

“This is a natural manifestation of a certain lack of resources that exists in services to unhoused individuals in the capital area. Nobody looks in a car basement or a parking garage unless they have nowhere else to seek shelter,” Svala observed.

Eruption at Mt. Askja Likely “Sooner Rather than Later”

Lake Askja, Askja, Volcano

Ármann Höskuldsson, a volcanologist and geochemist at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, told Fréttablaðið on Wednesday that the Askja volcano was likely to erupt “sooner rather than later.” Temperature patterns at the surface of Lake Askja suggest that geothermal flux had significantly increased over the past few weeks.

“It’s about to erupt”

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, the University of Iceland’s Volcanology and Natural Hazard Research Group (i.e. Rannsóknastofa í eldfjallafræði og náttúruvá) revealed that the surface water of Lake Askja (situated in the crater of the volcano Askja in the northeast of the glacier Vatnajökull) had reached a temperature of 2°C and that a thermal analysis of a satellite image showed that the water was heating up steadily.

Ármann Höskuldsson, a volcanologist and geochemist at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, spoke to Fréttablaðið regarding this update: “This means the geothermal fissures have opened up. It is the effect of magma flowing into the mountain. The roof of the mountain gives way and cracks open. This means that the heat reaches the surface faster and that the water heats up and the ice melts.”

Ármann added that under normal conditions there would be ice over the lake. This increased ground temperature in the area was, therefore, abnormal – which could only mean one thing: “It’s about to erupt,” Ármann concluded. The volcanologist was, however, careful to caveat this statement by saying that it was impossible to predict exactly when the eruption would occur.

“But we’ll hopefully be given reasonable notice when the time comes,” Ármann remarked.

Read the full post from the University of Iceland’s Volcanology and Natural Hazard Research Group here.

Deep North Episode 15: Of Mountains and Men

power lifting in iceland

A look into the world of strongmen and powerlifting in Iceland. Called aflraunir in Icelandic, the competition involves a potpourri of premodern feats of strength (with a few modern twists) often named for mythological heroes: the Atlas Stones, the Hercules Hold, Conan’s Wheel, Fingal’s Finger. In strongman, there are no points for subtlety.

 

Reykjavík Municipal Archives to Be Closed Down

Yesterday, the City Council of Reykjavík approved the mayor’s proposal to close down the Reykjavík Municipal Archives. The operations of the Municipal Archives would be incorporated into the National Archives of Iceland. Historians and archivists have criticised the decision, RÚV reports.

Operations to be transferred to the National Archives

Yesterday, Reykjavík City Council approved Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson’s proposal to close down the Reykjavík Municipal Archives. The mayor’s proposal was presented at a city council meeting six months ago, although its formal processing was postponed until yesterday.

The proposal was predicated on a summary authored by KPMG, which reviewed the operation of the Municipal Archives and assessed three possible options to cut down costs: one, to continue running the Municipal Archives in its current form; two, to increase cooperation with the National Archives of Iceland, which would imply the construction of a new archive; and three, to close down the Municipal Archives and transfer its operation to the National Archives. The last option was considered, by far, the cheapest.

Mayor Dagur told RÚV that the city council had made “a policy decision,” but that the matter would go before the city executive council. “The [path] that was chosen was to start discussions with the National Archives about joint digital preservation and, in effect, the merging of these institutions. That would mean that the Municipal Archives, in its current form, would no longer be an independent entity.”

According to available analyses, operational changes will not be felt over the next four years, Dagur noted. “It will depend on the progress made during discussions, on the outcome of those discussions, and the overall outcome regarding these preservation issues in the country as a whole.” On this latter point, Dagur referred to the global discussion concerning the digital preservation of documents. He hopes that museums in Iceland will unite to ensure safe and accessible document storage.

“Our discussions have solely been positive and constructive,” Dagur said of his relationship with the state. “The National Archives is, in many ways, facing the same challenges as the Municipal Archives and the city itself. If we look to other countries, we see that they’re facing similar challenges, as well.”

Dagur observed that there was no reason to believe that ensuring access to archives would not improve if matters were handled properly. The goal was to translate a lot of data into digital form so that individuals weren’t forced to look to a single place in order to access documents.

A misguided decision based on limited understanding

As noted by RÚV, the proposal to close down the Reykjavík Municipal Archives surprised Svanhildur Bogadóttir, an archivist employed at the institution, when the media reported the proposal in the middle of last month. National Archivist Hrefna Róbertsdóttir further commented that, to the best of her knowledge, this would be the first time that a municipality’s archives were closed.

Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, professor of history at the University of Iceland, told RÚV that the proposal was misguided and showed a limited understanding of museum issues.