COVID-19 in Iceland: Locals Advised to Form Christmas Bubble Skip to content

COVID-19 in Iceland: Locals Advised to Form Christmas Bubble

By Yelena

Laufabrauð.
Photo: Golli. Laufabrauð, a traditional Icelandic Christmas treat.

Iceland’s Ministry of Health will issue updated COVID-19 regulations today or tomorrow, set to take effect this Wednesday, December 2. At a briefing in Reykjavík this morning, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason declined to reveal details of the restrictions, though he did express his belief that there was not much room to relax the rules if Iceland wants to avoid another spike in cases. Iceland has seen growth in new domestic cases in recent days, following weeks of declining numbers. Growth remains linear rather than exponential, however.

Christmas Guidelines Issued

Authorities have now issued specific guidelines for the holiday season, both for Christmas gatherings and shopping. The guidelines emphasise what authorities called forming a “Christmas bubble,” as authorities put it at the briefing today: limiting one’s social circle during the holidays, as well as meeting online when possible. Shopping guidelines include having a list ready before heading out to shops, and buying online when possible.

When it comes to gatherings, authorities recommend sending invites well in advance so guests can limit their interactions leading up to the gathering. They also recommend avoiding buffets, using a mask when preparing food, and limiting unnecessary access to the kitchen. Locals are also reminded that they may not pick up travellers arriving from abroad at the airport. Further guidelines are available on the official COVID website.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason (pictured below) and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Óskar Reykdalsson, Director of Health Clinics in the Reykjavík Capital Area.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. There were 8 new domestic cases diagnosed (3 in quarantine), 1 at the border. Total active cases: 187. 41 are in hospital and 2 in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur says guidelines for Christmas gatherings have been published on covid.is. The guidelines will be reviewed regularly.

Þórólfur goes over the numbers from yesterday. While the number of cases is growing, the growth is linear, not exponential so far. The percentage of those testing positive (among all those tested) is decreasing. All those who tested positive yesterday are residents of the capital area. We’re still dealing with the same three strains of the virus, no new strains are appearing even though several cases have been caught at the border. This shows the effectiveness of border testing, says Þórólfur.

Only five of the COVID-19 patients at the National Hospital have an active case of the virus. No COVID-19 patients are in hospital in North Iceland. The number of people in quarantine has grown in the past few days, which correlates with the number of cases diagnosed in the past days. We’ve been able to trace most of the infections and most of them are spread in workplaces and at small gatherings. This is yet another reason to ask the public to be particularly aware of gatherings during the coming weeks.

I’ve sent my recommendations to the Minister of Health and they are currently under review. It’s my opinion that there’s not much room to ease restrictions if we don’t want an uptick in infections, says Þórólfur. The updated regulations that take effect from December 2 should be issued by the Ministry of Health today or tomorrow. We have no new news of vaccinations but preparations are ongoing.

Óskar takes over. He wants to raise awareness of the indirect long-term effects of the pandemic. He mentions mental health and economic stress but also the reduced number of diagnoses of serious illnesses, such as cancer. While cancer diagnoses have gone down in other countries, Iceland’s healthcare centres haven’t had as extensive closures as in other countries. However, Óskar still urges people to contact their local health care centre if they are at all concerned about their health. It’s best to call first if you need assistance, but don’t hesitate to do so.

Óskar reminds the public of the most common symptoms of COVID-19: sore throat, cough, and fatigue. Contact your healthcare centre, or register for a test online and get tested. It’s better to get tested more often than not, even if your symptoms are mild, because if we catch the virus early, we minimise the risk of spreading it. Test results are usually available in a few hours but we remind people that if they go for a test, they should stay at home until they have their result and avoid contact with others. If you’re sick, even if it’s not COVID-19, stay at home, you don’t want to spread other illnesses either at this time.

Healthcare centres are preparing for different vaccination scenarios, depending on the amount of doses they get, says Óskar. They aim to administer the vaccinations as fast as possible, but will also pay attention to infection prevention at vaccination sites. Personal infection prevention is key, says Óskar: “It’s number 1, 2, and all the way up to 10.”

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur declines to comment further on his recommendations for updated restrictions until the government is ready to present their regulations.

Most new cases are being diagnosed in the capital area. Will regional restrictions be considered over Christmas? Þórólfur says he will not rule out regional regulations.

Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, now COVID-positive, has been criticised for having many visitors over a single weekend. How important is it that you as authorities follow the rules you issue? Þórólfur answers that it’s very important. They’ve always said that the virus is the enemy and infection shaming is not helpful, it can happen to everyone. While the pandemic response team follows their own guidelines, they have families whom they interact with as well, and when you interact with others, there’s always a risk of infection.

When asked about the predictability of the authorities’ actions, Þórólfur states that he’s sympathetic to the plight of people trying to plan ahead, but unfortunately the virus’ trajectory is not predictable and he won’t provide false hopes in that respect.

Is there a reason fewer people are getting tested? Óskar says he hopes it is because fewer people are experiencing symptoms. It is clear that fewer people seek out testing over the weekend. It’s so important for the community that people get tested as soon as they suspect even minor symptoms so that cases are caught early, says Óskar. Óskar stresses that people should seek out testing no matter the day of the week.

When asked again about Víðir’s infection and the people who visited his home, Þórólfur addresses the basic guidelines of infection prevention regulations: a gathering limit of 10 is in effect and the two-metre rule. We’re not asking everyone to stay at home and not meet a single person, that would be a lockdown. We’re asking people to maintain personal hygiene, disinfect surfaces frequently, and social distance, as well limiting gatherings to 10 people. If people stick to those rules, there’s still a risk of infection but it’s minimal. It’s a problem when people don’t follow these basic rules.

Þórólfur is asked about gathering rules in other countries. He says that every country is tackling this differently and nobody knows the perfect way to deal with the virus. The most important thing is to stick to the rules in place.

How many people are allowed in a “Christmas bauble?” are family Christmas parties out of the question? Þórólfur underlines the regulations in place (2-metre rule, 10-person limit, mask use when distancing cannot be maintained). There are safe ways to celebrate Christmas.

When asked about the possibility of opening swimming pools before Christmas, Þórólfur declines to comment until the Ministry has presented the updated regulations.

Is it acceptable to attend several 10-person gatherings over a single day or several days? Þórólfur says that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the infection prevention guidelines.

Rögnvaldur ends the briefing by underlining the importance of personal preventative measures such as hand washing and disinfection.

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.

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