COVID-19 in Iceland: Too Early to Plan Summer Travel, Say Authorities Skip to content

COVID-19 in Iceland: Too Early to Plan Summer Travel, Say Authorities

By Yelena

Keflavík airport
Photo: Photo: Páll Stefánsson. Iceland’s international airport in Keflavík.

The only thing certain about summer is that it will come eventually, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated at a briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Authorities at the briefing stated it was too early to plan summer vacations on foreign beaches and urged locals to avoid travelling abroad at this time. Those who do may find borders closed to them and will put themselves at increased risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Such travellers also put Iceland at risk of another wave of local infection: while the country has contained the virus locally with relative success, its biggest threat is the arrival of new cases from abroad.

The so-called British strain that has been responsible for a surge of cases in Europe has not managed to spread domestically in Iceland. While the strain has been identified in a few dozen cases diagnosed at the border, it has only been responsible for seven domestic infections, all closely tied to people returning from abroad. The Brazilian and South African strains that are concerning health authorities in other countries and have spread elsewhere have not been detected at Iceland’s borders nor within the country.

No Confirmed Link Between Vaccinations and Deaths

At the briefing, Director of Health Alma Möller reviewed the results of an investigation into five deaths following vaccination of nursing home residents last month. Four of the deaths were found to have no causal link to the vaccination. In the fifth case, a causal link could not be ruled out. Alma pointed out that the group first vaccinated was the oldest and most frail group in Iceland and that on average, 18 people in this group pass away every week. Healthcare authorities have found no increase in mortality rates among the elderly demographic following the vaccinations.

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of our live-tweeting of the briefing.

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson.

Yesterday’s numbers are up on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases yesterday, 2 in quarantine. Total active cases: 143. 19 are in hospital, none in ICU.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts the meeting by discussing the situation in the countries around us and how it affects international travel and border restrictions in Iceland. We have heard examples of Icelanders running into trouble when travelling. In light of this situation, we don’t recommend travelling abroad unless there’s a dire necessity.

Þórólfur takes over to go over the numbers. Four cases were diagnosed yesterday, but fewer tests are administered over the weekend. The so-called British strain has been diagnosed at the border but hasn’t spread domestically. The Brazilian and South African strains that have spread elsewhere have not been detected in Iceland. We’re seeing indications that there’s not a lot of infections spreading in the community.

We’re worried over the number of active cases caught at the border, however, Þórólfur says. Last Friday, the Minister of Health issued new regulations stating that everyone arriving from abroad must be tested, except for children, but they are now required to quarantine. New infection prevention regulations took effect last week, but while we’ve relaxed restrictions, we ask people not to see it as an opportunity to stop practising infection prevention measures.

A vaccine shipment arrived this morning with 3,000 doses. Healthcare authorities are preparing guidelines for vaccinating people with a history of allergic reactions. Þórólfur seconds Rögnvaldur’s statement urging locals to avoid travel abroad at all costs.

Alma takes over to discuss vaccination of nursing home residents. While the Pfizer vaccine underwent extensive testing by manufacturers, not many of the test subject were elderly. The Directorate of Health received a few notices of possible serious side effects (deaths) and decided to investigate them thoroughly as this is a new vaccine. Of the 5 deaths reported to the Directorate of Health, four were found to have no causal link to the vaccination. In the fifth case, a causal link could not be ruled out. Healthcare authorities also reviewed mortality rates among the elderly demographic following the vaccinations and found that there were no indications that deaths had increased. It should be noted that the group first vaccinated was the oldest and most frail group in Iceland and that on average, 18 people in this group pass away every week, Alma adds.

Icelandic authorities have also inquired whether healthcare authorities in other Nordic countries have received notifications of possible serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines. Nordic health authorities have replied that some deaths have been reported following vaccination but most have been linked to underlying illnesses. Alma adds that people experiencing illness should not be vaccinated until symptoms such as fever and infection have subsided. This applies to all people but especially seniors.

The panel opens for questions. Rögnvaldur is asked about the fatal car accident in the Westfjords involving a family driving home from Keflavík airport following an overnight flight. Rögnvaldur answers that people can spend a night in a hotel resting before taking a long drive and that there is a list of hotels that accept quarantining guests on covid.is.

Rögnvaldur is asked about people breaking infection prevention regulations at a restaurant over the weekend. He says he is not privy to the details of the incident but states that authorities are seeing indications that the public is relaxing more than the situation allows.

Þórólfur is asked about the AstraZeneca vaccine. He states that the European Medicines Agency is expected to rule on whether to grant it a licence on January 29. The double border test was made compulsory because of fears that people weren’t respecting the rules of 14-day quarantine. Are there indications that people aren’t respecting the 5-day quarantine between tests? Rögnvaldur replies that the system has to be based on trust and that so far, it’s worked.

Is the British strain more contagious among children? All of the cases where the strain has been identified in Iceland were among adults so we don’t have local data on that, says Þórólfur, adding that he hasn’t seen any research to support that.

Þórólfur is asked if there is a difference in side effects reported between the Modern and Pfizer vaccines. He replies that it is hard to say, as the vaccines were administered to different demographics: healthcare workers and nursing home residents.

Asked about summer vacations and summer travel, Þórólfur states that it’s a little too early to plan them just yet. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the summer. The only thing certain is that summer will arrive, in due time.

Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing. From the start of the pandemic, contact tracing has been our main method of fighting the virus. Now, we’re seeing that the contact tracing team is not receiving as much information from the public as they did at first, he says. Contact tracing staff need information to be able to effectively break the chain of infection. He encourages the public to co-operate fully in the case of infection arising. The briefing has ended.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet Icelandic authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing, scheduled for Thursday, January 21.

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