COVID-19 Information Briefing: Omicron Becoming Dominant Skip to content

COVID-19 Information Briefing: Omicron Becoming Dominant

By Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Þórólfur Guðnason Chief Epidemiologist
Photo: Golli.

Icelandic authorities’ gave a COVID-19 information briefing at 11 AM, the first one since November. The meeting was called in response to rising case numbers, as Iceland reported a record of 494 COVID-19 cases yesterday. On the panel were familiar faces: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson.

Iceland’s COVID-19 numbers Dec. 22:
New cases: 494 (150 in quarantine)
Total active cases: 2,622 ⬆️
Hospitalised: 10 (3 in ICU)
14-day incidence rate per 100,000: 735.5 ⬆️
Fully vaccinated: 77% of population
Booster shots administered: 154,002 (41.6%)

The information briefing went as follows:

Víðir Reynisson starts the meeting by going over the numbers. He states that they continue to keep an eye on the healthcare system and the plan is still to flatten the curve to minimise the risk of the healthcare becoming overwhelmed. 

A record number of infections

A record number of infections yesterday means that the infection tracing team can’t keep up and not every newly infected person will get a call from the team, despite added help from red cross volunteers. All newly infected people are asked to contact the people they might have come into contact with 24 hours before experiencing symptoms at a closer distance than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes or repeatedly over the day such as at a workplace breakroom. 

Omicron becoming dominant

Þórólfur takes over. He recollects that people hoped that two shots of the vaccine would keep the virus at bay but that hope was dashed. Similarly, booster shots provide good coverage for delta but the omicron variant can still overcome the vaccine’s protection. Omicron is fast becoming the dominant variant in Iceland. 

 Þórólfur goes over what is known about the omicron, a more infectious virus and a shorter time between infection and illness. That period is 2-3 days for Omicron but was 5-6 for delta.  The illness is different however and there are some indications that serious illness occurs less frequently, although data still varies. 

A milder illness from omicron would be good news but a high number of infections means that the healthcare system can still be overwhelmed. Two infections provide some protection from infection but that seems to wane after five months. A booster shot provides better protection but there is still not enough known about protection against serious illness. 

Hospitalisation rate in next few days uncertain

We don’t know how many people will be infected over the next days and weeks or how many will have to be hospitalized. As of yet, we haven’t seen an increase in hospitalisations but the next few days will tell us more. Hopefully, widespread vaccination coverage will help us in the fight against this new wave. Þórólfur also reiterates the importance of personal protective measures, such as handwashing, avoiding crowds, vaccinations and booster shots, and wearing masks when required. He’s hopeful that restrictions and vaccination campaigns will prove successful and that they can ease restrictions soon. 

Omicron may be milder

Alma takes over, lamenting that they’re standing at the podium once more and that the virus is again interrupting Christmas celebrations. Alma goes over data from Denmark, which seems to indicate that omicron is a milder variant but notes that as of yet, most infections are in younger people. Hospitalisations are around 0.8% but are increasing. 

Improvements at National Hospital but situation still serious

Alma goes over the state of the hospital, which has been under a lot of strain for a long time, especially the ICU and emergency room. According to Alma, authorities have fought to increase hospital beds by 120, nursing home beds increased by 140, improving home nursing services and opening high-care beds for patients that are too sick for general wards but do not intensive care. Despite these efforts to relieve strain on the hospital, the situation is still difficult. Management is wary of what the omicron wave will bring and healthcare institutes have had meetings over the past few days preparing to adapt to the situations and make things work. Emergency plans for patient receptions have been updated and the COVID department’s operations are being updated. Remote covid care will be automated with questionnaires in the online healthcare service instead of personal phone calls to all covid patients but patients will still be able to call in and receive answers. 

Individual protective measures vital

Alma, much like Þórólfur and Víðir, stresses the importance of individual’s infection prevention behaviour, washing and sanitising hands and wearing a mask properly, so that it covers the mouth and the nose. She urges the importance of unity and compassion in fighting the pandemic. 

No single event for infections

The panel is now open for questions. 

Þórólfur is asked about the nature of the infections. He answers that a full analysis is not yet available but that it’s mostly young people and recently, young adults. The ratio of vaccinated individuals with infections remains similar, although the rate of people with two shots is going slightly up. Infections aren’t limited to a single event but people are out and about and infections could have happened anywhere. 

Exemptions not what he recommended

Þórólfur is asked about the temporary exemptions from the new infection prevention regulations. Þórolfur answers that they weren’t a part of his recommendations for a reason, this could be dangerous but it’s not him that sets the regulations, it’s the minister, who has to take more factors into account. 

Staffing is hospital Achilles heel

Alma is asked about the situation at the hospital, have surgeries been postponed and how is the staff doing? Alma states that when infections are widespread, the hospital staff is liable to go into quarantine just like any others and it’s clear that staffing is the hospital’s Achilles heel. Hile some surgeries have been postponed, they haven’t been cancelled completely like in Denmark. That is one option they have if the situation turns dire. 

Vaccines provide some protection

Þórólfur is asked about vaccine efficacy against omicron, replying it’s less than he would have liked but people with booster shots are still less likely to be infected, especially when compared to unvaccinated people. Þórólfur reminds reporters that this is something that they have mentioned several times, that a new variant could cause this situation. 

PCR tests more reliable than rapid tests

Þórólfur is asked about the difference between rapid tests and PCR tests. He states that he doesn’t have enough data on people with negative rapid test results receiving positive cr results but that there is considerable data on people with positive antigen results showing negative PCR results. This is why everyone with symptoms has to take a PCR test and that they’re not relying on antigen tests. 

Pandemic fatigue caused by pandemic, not restrictions

Þórólfur is asked about pandemic fatigue, are they seeing people coming to the hospital for other reasons? Þórólfur replies that the pandemic is affecting people and that people are tired but it’s also because of the disease, not just the government’s reactions. We’re all tired but we just have to keep going. 

Alma states that the healthcare system is aware of this possibility and looked into it, especially during the first part of the pandemic and that research showed that there were some mental effects of the pandemic but they mostly affected people who had experienced the disease, indicating that the pandemic has worse effects on people’s mental health than restrictions to prevent infections. 

As for healthcare staff, Alma mentions that data from other countries shows that in hospital departments hit hard by the pandemic, up to 20% of staff have quit. This would be great damage to our small healthcare system so it’s vital that we latten the curve and protect healthcare staff as much as possible. 

a healthy lifestyle boost immune system

Alma mentions that a healthy lifestyle helps the immune system, sleep enough, eat well and for Icelanders, take vitamin D supplements. The red cross and others provide mental health phone lines if needed. 

Is social unity gone?

V’iðir is asked about societal unity, is it gone? Víðir says no, it’s not gone but people are becoming very tired and trying to find new ways to deal with the situation. Alma agrees, she sees no sign of unity waning, people are incredibly ready to follow the rules and wear masks. The University’s social studies department has polled trust and they’ve found that people are still ready to trust healthcare authorities. 

Tests available and encouraged over holidays

Þórólfur is asked if holidays would mean that people are less likely to get tested. He says he’s not too worried but that fewer people might get tested resulting in lower infection numbers. He encourages everyone experiencing symptoms to go get tested. 

Mixing generations might cause problems

Alma agrees and adds that as many young people are getting infected these days, in Denmark, they’re worried about generations mixing over the holidays, and the young people infecting their older loved ones, adding to the urgency of getting tested if experiencing any symptoms.  

Get vaccinated

Þórólur states that we’re not as well off against the omicron variant as we thought we were against the delta but still states that all in all, we’re doing pretty well. This should not discourage us from getting vaccinated but encourage us and hopefully, the booster shot will mean that fewer people will have to be hospitalised. 

Not over until it’s over

Þórólfur is asked about new medications against the virus and the hope that a milder omicron variant marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic, replying that we need to get more information and more experience before we can rely on the medications. “We’re always hoping for the next thing that will finish the pandemic off for good but we have to continue to be prepared for the possibility that new variants will cause even more problems.” 

The virus is a disappointment

When asked if it’s a disappointment to have such harsh restrictions two years into the pandemic, Þórólfur replies yes, of course, but we have to look at the situation as a whole and adapt to the situation, rather than closing our eyes and ears to reality. Alma states that the virus itself is a continuous disappointment and how clever it is at breaching our defences.

V’iðir likens the virus to a natural disaster, we can’t be annoyed at a volcanic eruption, it just happens and we have to deal with it. 

Children’s vaccinations go ahead in January

Vaccinations for children are scheduled for the second week of January. For children aged 12-15, two shots of vaccinations seem to be working a lot better than for adults. Comparing vaccine efficacy doesn’t show much of a difference as of yet. Asked about vaccine supplies, Þórólfur stated that the situation is pretty good, and we will receive shipments of the Pfizer children’s vaccine soon. 

Þórólfur is asked about the legal status of isolation and quarantines and both Víðir and Þórólfur state that there is legal authority to quarantine and isolate people. People have taken this to court with rulings in healthcare authorities favour.

Víðir ends the briefing by reminding people of the authorities goals, tempering infections to keep the strain on the healthcare system at bay and finding ways to live in as open a society as possible while minimizing the risk of infection.

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