COVID-19 in Iceland: Restrictions to Be Relaxed Further Following Domestic Success Skip to content

COVID-19 in Iceland: Restrictions to Be Relaxed Further Following Domestic Success

By Yelena

Þórólfur Guðnason
Photo: Almannavarnir/Facebook.

In a briefing held in Reykjavík this morning, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason said he would submit his recommendations for relaxing restrictions to the Health Ministry this week. Iceland has not reported a domestic case out of quarantine since January 20. All residents of the capital area that are 90 years of age and older have been invited to receive COVID-19 vaccines tomorrow.

Iceland will receive 1,000 more doses of the Pfizer vaccine per week than previously expected and should receive its first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine this month. Authorities maintain their hope that it will be possible to vaccinate all those 70 and older by the end of March.

 

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

On the panel: Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason. Special guest: Ragnheiður Ósk Erlendsdóttir, Director of Patient Care at Capital Area Healthcare Centres.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases yesterday and 11 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 41. 14 are in hospital, none in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Víðir has returned from a leave of absence to moderate the briefings. He contracted COVID-19 last year. Þórólfur starts by going over the numbers. No one tested positive yesterday domestically, though fewer tests were taken (as usual on the weekends). In the past week, 24 people have tested positive at the border, about half with an active infection. About 200-400 people arrive at the border every day. 55 people have tested positive for the British variant in Iceland, and 13 of them domestically. All those domestic cases were people with a close connection to people arriving from abroad that had tested positive for the variant.

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason: We can say that we’ve been successful at keeping the pandemic at bay. Last week we had 10 domestic infections, all in quarantine. The last time someone tested positive outside quarantine was Jan. 20. Þórólfur is preparing a memorandum for the Minister of Health where he will recommend relaxing domestic restrictions but won’t disclose the details yet. He reminds employers not to put people arriving in the country to work until they’ve completed their two mandatory tests with a 5-day quarantine in between.

Vaccinations will continue this week and authorities are expecting another 2,300 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to arrive this week. It was good to hear about the AstraZeneca vaccine receiving conditional marketing authorisation last week, says Þórólfur, and Iceland is expecting doses to arrive in February, although the shipping schedule is not yet available. We’ll be receiving more of the Pfizer vaccine than scheduled, about 1,000 more doses per week, says Þórólfur.

Everyone 90 years and older in the capital area are invited to come in for vaccination tomorrow. Most should have received an SMS. If not, there will be an open period where those born 1931 and earlier can show up (and are asked to bring ID). Those who can’t make it tomorrow will not miss their chance to be vaccinated – they can simply come in the next time the healthcare centres administer vaccinations.

The panel opens for questions. “Why aren’t we trying to eliminate the virus completely?” Þórólfur believes that strategy would be very hard to manage. Þórólfur reminds people that controlling the pandemic isn’t like playing a video game where you choose your strategy and complete it. He uses the example of Australia: while Australians have almost no domestic restrictions, when one case is detected, they return to a complete lockdown. Þórólfur is not sure that Icelanders would agree to such measures. Iceland’s strategy is to keep the virus at bay with the least restrictive regulations possible, says Þórólfur.

Vaccine shipment schedules are constantly changing and Þórólfur is not ready to give an update on long-term vaccination plans. Þórólfur will submit recommendations for relaxed restrictions to the Health Minister sometime this week. Þórólfur is asked about what kind of restrictions he would prefer to have in the country. His preferred situation, he says, is to have strict regulations at the border and somewhat relaxed conditions domestically. There’s talk of adding extra precautions at the border, of requiring a negative PCR test at the point of departure. We’re in as good a position as possible until herd immunity has been reached, says Þórólfur.

When asked about the effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine among senior citizens, Þórólfur clarifies that the vaccine has not been proved ineffective for senior citizens, it simply hasn’t been tested on that demographic so the data is not available. A decision has not been made about how to distribute the AstraZeneca vaccine, it’s possible that Iceland will only use it for younger demographics.

When asked why he is changing his mind and relaxing the restrictions before the projected date of February 17, Þórólfur states that he hasn’t changed his mind, he has always said that he is constantly re-evaluating the situation. The best way to handle this from an epidemiological perspective would be a complete lockdown, but there are other factors at play and Þórólfur isn’t so sure that strategy would be effective.

We’re receiving more vaccine doses than originally planned and it’s possible that everyone over the age of 70 might be vaccinated before the end of March, says Þórólfur. Asked whether groups such as athletes training for the Olympics will be given vaccine priority, Þórólfur responds that several groups are requesting priority and determining who gets vaccines first is a challenge. Everyone believes they are important and everyone is important, but prioritising people ahead of someone else, that’s another matter, says Þórólfur.

Vaccinated people will not be exempt from infection prevention regulations to begin with, but at some point in the future they will. How and when to exempt vaccinated people form infection prevention regulations is one of the things health authorities want to research in a herd immunity study, such as the one currently being negotiated with Pfizer (no more news on that front, however). It’s important that everyone keeps participating, we’re doing well so far.

Víðir takes over. We’ve been getting notifications that people are being less careful in places such as the hot tubs at the swimming pools and it’s completely unnecessary to be rude to staff trying to do their job and make sure people are following the rules, he says. Concerning travel abroad, border regulations in other countries are changing frequently with very short notice so we encourage people to avoid unnecessary international travel for the time being.

Solidarity has proven successful, but now we have to protect our success. Let’s not forget what happened last fall, says Víðir, referring to the wave of infection that peaked in mid-October. Víðir has also heard that people are letting their guard down concerning getting tested when they experience flu or cold symptoms. It’s vital that people go get tested for COVID as soon as they experience any symptoms, even if very few are testing positive for COVID these days. The briefing has ended.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next briefing, scheduled for Thursday, February 4 at 11.03am.

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