At a scheduled information briefing today, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management introduced a new colour-coded warning system, similar to the Icelandic Met Office’s weather warning system. THe colours range from grey representing a “new normal” to red, indicating a serious state of affairs. Currently, the whole country is in the red, even though the pandemic’s current wave is waning, as there are many different factors that dictate Chief Epidemiologist’s Þórólfur Guðnason’s decision on when to change the warnings. Those factors include number of new infections, hospital status, state of the pandemic in other countries and if numbers of infections are going up or down.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s Live-tweeting of the briefing
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir, a specialist at the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, who will present the new colour-coded COVID warning system. (irew.cc/han)
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 7 new domestic cases yesterday – all in quarantine at the time – and 5 at the border. Total active cases: 197. 36 are in hospital and 3 in intensive care.
The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers. The weekend has been good, he says, with all new domestic cases being already in quarantine. However fewer tests were conducted as is typical over the weekend. The coming days will show how the wave is developing. The situation is still precarious, so I encourage everyone with any symptoms to get tested, Þórólfur says. One good development is that the proportion of tests that are positive (of all tested) has gone down.
The majority of new cases in the recent weeks are due to the so-called “blue strain,” the one that kickstarted the current wave. For a while, health authorities thought the blue strain was dying out but that judgement was premature.
Of those in hospital due to COVID-19, only one individual is actively infectious. That person is in ICU. There are 3 people in total in ICU and two of them are on ventilators.
The restrictions now in effect last until Wednesday so from Thursday on, there will be new regulations. Þórólfur hasn’t sent his recommendations to the Minister of Health and is not prepared to discuss the details of what he is planning at this point. Þórólfur states that it’s clear that we can’t lift restrictions quickly. We’ll have to expect a low-key Advent season and a low-key Christmas in Iceland.
We’re still preparing for the arrival of vaccines and how we will distribute them, Þórólfur says. We have no further news of when they will arrive or how many doses we will receive but that will probably become clearer toward the end of the month. Þórólfur notes that vaccination will not be mandatory in Iceland and vaccines will be free of charge.
Ingibjörg Lilja takes over to discuss the colour-coded COVID warning system. “For way too long, we’ve been dealing with this virus, but during that time, we’ve gathered experience and knowledge that we can now use to increase predictability,” Lilja says. The system is not set in stone. For it to serve its purpose, we need it to be able to adapt to our needs.
Just like the weather warning system, grey is the lowest warning level and represents the “new normal,” then warning levels rise through yellow, orange, and to the highest level: red. The country is separated into regions according to police regions. It could happen that different warning levels/colours are applied to different regions. For example, if the whole country is orange but suddenly, the Chief Epidemiologist’s data shows that things are getting worse in the capital area, then that region will turn red and we’ll issue a warning. During a red weather alert, we are careful and for the most part, we stay at home. We’ll do the same during red COVID alerts. On covid.is, you can find the regulations and guidelines that apply for each colour/warning level. Schools have been categorised as well as different types of athletic activities and that information can be found at covid.is.
Right now, the whole country is red but we hope that we’ll be able to change the colours soon. The warning system does not protect us in and of itself, reminds Lilja. Hopefully, the colour-coded system will help to increase predictability but no matter the colour, we have to be careful and pay close attention to personal hygiene.
The panel opens for questions. The first question concerns an Icelandic doctor who arrived in the country recently and refused both testing and quarantine, and been vocal in their opposition to the government’s restrictions. Þórólfur says they haven’t looked into the case specifically but he is saddened to hear his colleagues, who have undergone medical training, have that opinion. Cases are not handled differently depending on whether people are vocal in their opposition or not. Rögnvaldur adds that local police handles cases such as that one and that the individual in question does not have an active license to practice medicine. Rögnvaldur is asked about if it’s possible to reject tests on arrival to the country. He says all travellers can opt for 14-day quarantine instead of testing.
The panel is asked about the possibility that people who have recovered from COVID could be exempted from gathering limits. Þórólfur says that’s an idea but he believes it would be difficult to execute.
Þórólfur is asked about whether there is a possibility that the virus could mutate into a strain that is resistant to vaccines if it is transmitted from humans to animals and back to humans again (as happened with mink in Denmark). Þórólfur says that was something Danish authorities feared and what led them to cull mink, but such a mutation was not discovered. No cases of COVID have been found in Icelandic mink despite testing.
Asked if people who suspect they’ve already contracted COVID should get tested for antibodies before getting vaccinated, Þórólfur answers that they could and perhaps should, but there’s no danger in getting vaccinated though an individual already has antibodies, except for the possible side effects.
Why is the whole country coded red according to the warning system right now and what will it take to downgrade the colour? The colour coding is dependent on several factors: new domestic infections, hospital status and so on. Þóróflur says there’s no magic number that determines when the warning level changes, but that it’s a tool for authorities to let people know what to expect.
Þórólfur is asked about his fear that the public is relaxing because of fewer cases are being diagnosed. Þórólfur says he didn’t notice people around him relaxing and hopes that others are not doing so. But in any case, he won’t base his recommendations on anecdotal evidence.
Þórólfur has no more information from the European Medicines Agency and will not report any further news of vaccines because he has none. He doesn’t expect any news until closer to the projected date of December 29. “Until then we’ll all suffer the lack of information together,” says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur says he will not suggest regional restrictions from December 9, even though most of the recent infections have been in the capital area, as the wave is currently waning.
Is skiing likely to increase infections? Þórólfur says it’s difficult to say, but authorities considered that question when outbreaks occurred in Austria last winter. However, it was likely the gatherings off the slopes had the most impact.
Do you still think border testing should be made mandatory, Þóróflur? That depends on if making the testing free of charge has changed anything, and right now it seems like it has. Very few people are choosing 14-day quarantine over testing at the border.
Rögnvaldur ends the meeting by addressing holiday celebrations. “Put the traditions on hold, we’ve had to change a lot of things this year and Christmas is no exception. Advent, Christmas, New Year’s Eve: we have to accept that they will be different this year,” says Rögnvaldur. “Wash your hands and keep your distance, it will work out if we tackle this together.” The briefing has ended.