COVID-19 in Iceland: Nation's Mental Health Stable Throughout First Wave, Research Shows Skip to content

COVID-19 in Iceland: Nation’s Mental Health Stable Throughout First Wave, Research Shows

By Yelena

Photo: Landspítali/Facebook.

Preliminary research presented at Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 briefing in Reykjavík today suggests the nation’s mental health did not suffer as a whole during the first wave of the ongoing pandemic. Researchers attribute these positive results to Iceland’s success in containing the pandemic with relatively mild restrictions. Healthcare workers also did not report deteriorating mental health throughout the first wave, though Director of Health Alma Möller stated that in-depth research into this group is still needed.

Professor Unnur Anna Valdimarsdóttir, who led the study, reported that although the nation’s mental health did not deteriorate as a whole throughout the first wave of the pandemic, those directly affected by contracting COVID-19 reported a decline in mental health, as did those who had family members diagnosed with the disease. Unnur’s belief was, however, that this group avoided worse outcomes thanks to great care and monitoring on the part of Iceland’s healthcare system. Research into the effects of the pandemic on public health and mental health will continue for at least two more years.

Read More: How Iceland’s Experts Tackled the First Wave of COVID-19

At the briefing, authorities emphasised that those who get contract COVID-19 from this date will spend Christmas in isolation, and urged the public to avoid gatherings leading up to the holiday.

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


On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Unnur Anna Valdimarsdóttir, professor at the University of Iceland, who will present research on public health and well-being in Iceland throughout the pandemic.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on 4 new domestic cases were diagnosed, all in quarantine at the time. Total cases: 144. 33 are in hospital due to COVID-19 and 3 of them are in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers. 32 are in hospital and 3 are in intensive care, all of them are on ventilators. The majority of active new cases are due to the so-called “blue strain;” no new strains are entering into the community and spreading. The R number is currently 0.6, which means each person infected is spreading the virus to fewer than one other person, a strong indication that the wave is on its way down. It’s clear that we’re exiting this wave of the pandemic, says Þórólfur, but it only takes very little for a group infection to start another wave. That’s especially important to remember with the festive season coming up.

News from last weekend indicates that some people in society haven’t been following infection prevention regulations and that’s a serious issue, says Þórólfur. I encourage everyone to avoid gatherings so we won’t have a new wave over Christmas, says the Chief Epidemiologist. Þórólfur says he is also worried due to increasing travel to Iceland leading up to Christmas, and underlines that people need to be careful and stick to all rules regarding travel and quarantine for travellers arriving from abroad.

Preparation for vaccination efforts are ongoing and next week we’ll present our plan, says Þórólfur. We will have all the information on the new vaccine and present all the research to the public.

Alma takes over to discuss public health. Preventative healthcare measures aim to prevent the spread of diseases and the COVID-19 response is one of the largest public health efforts ever. We all need to stick together until vaccination is completed, says Alma. COVID-19, as well as efforts to contain the pandemic, affect the public greatly and their effects might be latent. Increased anxiety and (domestic) violence, and increased unemployment and its effects on well-being are among the effects that might present later and we need to monitor. Depression and post-traumatic stress also need to be monitored among the public. We need scientific research to monitor the effects of COVID-19 efficiently and scientific institutions in Iceland have been working on important research in this field.

Unnur takes over to discuss the research she has been leading on public health and well-being during the pandemic. Unnur: The global pandemic is the largest public health challenge Iceland has faced and the university is doing its part to help us rise to it. The conclusions Unnur now presents are from the first wave of the pandemic in Iceland. The first study focused on the mental health of people whose employment or health was directly affected by the pandemic. Rates of depression increased the more days a patient was bed-bound due to COVID illness and rates were highest among those who were confined to their bed for a week or longer. Those who saw a drop in income also saw a rise in rates of depression.

Rates of depression did not increase among healthcare staff during the first wave, according to the research presented by Unnur. Early results indicate that people who were directly affected by the pandemic might experience a negative effect on their mental health. The research is ongoing and people who were contacted for the first study have received a follow-up survey. Research will continue over the next two years.

The panel opens for questions. If people are following the rules less, is it because they are less worried about the pandemic or is the messaging from healthcare officials too complicated to understand? People are relaxing a little but our message is clear, says Þórólfur. We’re asking people to behave in a certain way and be mindful that if they don’t, the pandemic might pick up again. We present the information we have, and it’s not a good strategy to paint a different picture than reality in order to hammer home a message, says Þórólfur.

There are no strong indications that national mental health is in decline, as it is in countries where the pandemic has spread uncontrollably. Restrictions have been relatively mild (compared to other countries) and even though people who were directly affected were negatively impacted, that’s not the case for the nation as a whole, says Unnur. Alma is grateful that the early results indicate that medical staff haven’t been severely negatively impacted, even though we have yet to conduct more in-depth research. Þórólfur adds that if the virus were allowed spread without restraint in Iceland, it would have a very serious impact on public health in the country as a whole, both physical and mental. He’s happy to hear the preliminary results from the investigation.

People who are diagnosed with COVID-19 from now until Christmas will have to be in isolation on Christmas Eve (and during the holiday itself), are there any special efforts to prepare for that? Quarantine hotels will be open over Christmas but the best way to prepare is to be careful and practice personal prevention methods to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19, says Þórólfur.

Local musicians are advertising streamed Christmas concerts with large groups of performers. Have they received exemptions from current regulations? Þórólfur says he does not know personally, as the Health Ministry handles exemptions, but he trusts that people will keep up infection prevention methods, compartmentalisations and distancing.

COVID-19 patients in Iceland have received good care and although there are complicated psychological concerns in this group, I believe they would be worse off if they hadn’t received such good care, says Unnur.

Will politicians or government ministers be prioritised in vaccination? No, says Þórólfur. We have not decided who will be the very first to receive the vaccine in Iceland, says Þórólfur.

The capital area police are in control of monitoring outdoor concerts and enforcing gathering limits but photos from one event on Laugavegur indicate that people might not have been following the rules carefully enough last weekend.

The UK, US, and Canada have granted the Pfizer vaccine a licence. Are they moving too fast? And can Iceland give the vaccine a licence without the approval of the European Medicines Agency? Þórólfur says the US and UK have an “army” of people to go over the data and do all that needs to be done to approve the vaccine. Iceland does not have access to such manpower. He adds: I think it’s very important that we follow the advice of Europe’s best specialists, instead of trying to be ahead of someone else. I don’t think that will matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Rögnvaldur ends the briefing by reminding the public of the so-called “Christmas bubbles” (choosing a closed 10-person group to spend the holidays with). Rögnvaldur puts a positive spin on the situation, saying that now is the time to hold a cosy, modest Christmas, which some people have even dreamed of for a long time but never had the chance to do.


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

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