In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s health authorities emphasised the importance of continued solidarity among the public to keep domestic infections at bay. As vaccination efforts ramp up in the country, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his hope that the coming months were in the final kilometres of a pandemic “marathon.”
The Chief Epidemiologist has submitted updated recommendations to the Health Minister regarding border restrictions. While courts ruled this week that Icelandic authorities do not have legal grounds to require certain travellers to quarantine in government-run facilities, Þórólfur stated there were other ways to tighten border regulations in order to ensure active infections from travellers do not spread into the community, such as increased monitoring of those in quarantine.
While a link has been found between rare instances of blood clots and the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, such instances are limited to women under 60, the Chief Epidemiologist stated. Iceland will thus continue administering the vaccine to those over 70 and will possibly add the 65-70 age group as vaccination efforts progress.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Jóhann B. Skúlason, Director of the Contact Tracing Team.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, all in quarantine, and 3 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 110. 27,092 are fully vaccinated, 7.4% of the population.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins: “I think it’s safe to say we’re all sick of this pandemic by now but let’s remind ourselves what our goals are.” They are: protect the healthcare system, protect vulnerable groups, keep border infections at bay and keep domestic infection rates low. We’re on the way to COVID-19 being part of history but we’re not there yet. Our most important tools to fight the pandemic are contact tracing and quarantine. We isolate those who are sick and quarantine those who have been exposed.
We want to trust people to do this together with us but we’ve seen that not everyone follows the rules. People break the rules for different reasons. Some do it intentionally, while for others, it’s a result of wishful thinking: no one expects to get sick. We have to take quarantine and isolation seriously, that’s how we beat this.
Þórólfur takes over. Five people tested positive in South Iceland the day before yesterday with a new variant of the virus. The group outbreak was traced back to an individual who had entered the country with an antibody certificate. They were most likely infected again. Such instances are very rare and at this point, it’s not reason enough for us to change our approach.
Three active cases were diagnosed at the border yesterday. All cases in the last few weeks both domestically and at the border are of the British variant. The people testing positive at the border are not all tourists, they are also people who live and work here.
Three group infections are largely responsible for the current wave of infection. Most have been traced back to people arriving from abroad who broke quarantine. It’s clear that group infections can be caused by just a few individuals who don’t follow the rules. Such group infections can easily start a new wave of the pandemic, Þórólfur says.
Courts have ruled that authorities cannot require travellers arriving in Iceland to spend their five-day quarantine in government-run quarantine hotels. Þórólfur has sent new recommendations for border restrictions to the Ministry of Health. They are not as effective, in his opinion, as the previous restrictions, but he hopes they will be successful in preventing border infections from leaking into the community.
Þórólfur goes over news of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The serious side effects are only linked to women under 60 so there will be no changes to Iceland’s policy of vaccinating people over the age of 70 with that vaccine. As vaccination efforts progress, that age limit might be moved down to 65 (for the AstraZeneca vaccine).
There have been arguments in the community about the border restrictions and Þórólfur fears that disagreement over infection prevention restrictions might negatively affect the solidarity that has been the key to keeping infections in Iceland at bay. Þórólfur: “Hopefully we’re on the last kilometres of a marathon. We need to stick together to get through this and reach the finish line safely.”
Jóhann, the head of the contact tracing team takes over. He starts by thanking his staff and complimenting their communication with the people they contact. The most important prat of the contact tracing team’s work is to get all the information necessary. The information the team gathers is confidential and can’t be turned over to the police. Information given to the contact tracing team will not lead to punishment, Jóhann states.
Registered nurses conduct the calls with everyone who has to go into quarantine, and explain the rules. Following these rules is vital for keeping the pandemic at bay. Quarantining possibly-infected individuals has proven successful in keeping the pandemic contained. All samples are sequenced by deCODE and mapping the virus variants also helps with tracing the spread of the virus.
Get tested as soon as possible, don’t wait until mild symptoms get more serious, Jóhann reminds the public. It can make a big difference. We’ve had success with our methods before, but only thanks to the participation and solidarity of the community, Jóhann states. Jóhann encourages the public to continue to co-operate with infection prevention regulations.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about his comments that he was disappointed with the verdict that authorities did not have a legal basis for requiring travellers to quarantine in government facilities when they had access to adequate facilities at home. He confirms that it was a disappointment, and also disappointing that Icelandic law did not support the regulations that were implemented. There are plenty of alternative possibilities to help ensure that infections don’t cross the borders, such as making regulations on at-home quarantine clearer and clarifying what type of housing is necessary for those in quarantine. Authorities could possibly require people to quarantine in government-run hotels if their homes don’t fulfil the requirements. They could also monitor arriving travellers more closely.
Asked if luck has played a part in things not being worse than they are, Þórólfur replies that luck is one thing but it’s also down to people’s solidarity and the public’s willingness to follow the rules.
When asked if domestic restrictions are still necessary now that most people in older demographics have been vaccinated, Þóróflur replies that the British variant is more likely to lead to hospitalisations among young people. That hasn’t happened in Iceland yet as the spread has been much less than in other countries thanks to restrictions. That could still happen however and the spread of the British variant likely wouldn’t spare Icelanders any more than it has young people in other countries. It’s too late to act when the virus has already spread, says Þórólfur.
Jóhann is asked if wrong information given to the contact tracing team has affected authorities ability to react to situations. He replies that yes, there were cases where correct information would have made it possible to act sooner and prevent infections.
Þórólfur is wary of relaxing restrictions at the borders too soon but states that authorities are taking precautions and if infections start crossing the borders, they will reconsider regulations. All authorities’ efforts have focused on implementing restrictions that are as effective as possible while being as uncumbersome as possible.
People with vaccination certificates or antibody certificates will be tested once at the border but there’s no reason according to the data at hand to require these people to be quarantined, says Þórólfur.
When asked about political disagreement over infection prevention measures, Þórólfur compliments the communication and co-operation he has had with the government. He won’t’ be demanding more authority over how infection prevention restrictions are implemented as “that’s not how he likes to work.” Political unrest can lead to cracks in the public’s solidarity but he’s happy that polls show 90% support for infection prevention measures among the public. While he has the support of the government and good co-operation with the Minister of Health, he feels secure in their efforts.
Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by encouraging the public to continue to show solidarity in infection prevention methods. The briefing has ended.