Icelandic authorities expressed both joy and caution at their 150th COVID-19 briefing, also their last of 2020. While Iceland began administering the first COVID-19 vaccines this morning, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated it was still impossible to say when herd immunity would be achieved. Iceland has ensured sufficient doses of various COVID-19 vaccines to innoculate a majority of the population, but it is not known when all the doses will arrive.
While vaccines may show us the light at the end of the tunnel, authorities underlined the importance of maintaining personal preventative measures for the time being.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Director of Health Alma Möller. Special guest Óskar Reykdalsson, Director of Capital Area Health Clinics, will be present to discuss vaccine administration.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 7 new domestic cases yesterday (2 in quarantine), and 5 from border testing. Total active cases: 142. 23 in hospital, none in ICU. One person died yesterday due to COVID-19, the 29th in Iceland.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins by stating this is the 150th COVID-19 briefing of Icelandic authorities and the last one of the year. The meeting will be interpreted into Polish on ruv.is, visir.is, and on Stöð 2, Rögnvaldur reminds. Rögnvaldur mentions the historical moment this morning when vaccination for frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents began. This pandemic is, however, not over yet, he reminds the public. We need to follow infection prevention regulations carefully, Rögnvaldur adds.
Þórólfur takes over to go over the numbers. 7 were diagnosed yesterday, slightly more than in recent days. Fewer samples were taken over Christmas, however, which could explain the discrepancy. The pandemic is still in a “depression” and we hope it will continue like this, says Þórólfur. I continue to encourage people with even the most minor symptoms to get tested.
The most common strain being found in sequencing of new cases is still the “blue” one which has been plaguing us since August, although a few different strains have been registered since says Þórólfur. 11 tested positive at the border before Christmas with the much-discussed UK strain of the virus. All were arriving from the UK except one coming from Denmark.
A patient at the National University Hospital in their seventies died yesterday. The death brings the total of COVID-19 related deaths in this wave of the pandemic up to 18. One person is in the ICU, and they are on a ventilator. We are still seeing low numbers of cases and hope that continues, but this week and next week will reveal whether Christmas gatherings will lead to a surge in new cases. In the new year, updated regulations on school activities take effect that represent a significant loosening on school operations.
Yesterday was a happy day, as the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Iceland. Today marks the first step in a new (and hopefully the final) chapter of the fight against COVID-19. Priority groups for vaccinations have been introduced. First are frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents, followed by the oldest age groups and people with pre-existing medical conditions. We’re expecting the next shipment from Pfizer in late January.
As vaccination progresses, Þórólfur says authorities hope to be able to relax restrictions. He can’t say at this moment what those changes will entail. For now, we have to continue our personal infection preventions. This isn’t over, but hopefully, we’re closer to the end, says Þórólfur.
Alma goes over the numbers of infections, illnesses and deaths in the past few months, despite all restrictions. This isn’t over yet, she reminds. Alma discusses the UK strain which has been found to be more contagious than other strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There is considerable concern about the strain as it has spread quickly and widely across the UK and other countries despite significant restrictions.
There are many unknowns about the new strain: whether people who have been infected with previous strains can contract it, for example, or whether it leads to more severe symptoms. The CEO of BioNTech has stated that in the worst-case scenario – if current vaccines are ineffective against the UK strain – it will take just six weeks to create a new one. Alma wishes everyone a happy new year and asks all those among the public who are able to get vaccinated to accept the offer. She will do it herself when it’s her turn, she says.
Director of Capital Area Health Clinics Óskar Reykdalsson takes over to discuss vaccination administration. He says it’s a fun day today as vaccination has begun and he hears that people are happy and giddy with anticipation. He cautions that COVID-19 is a serious disease and we have to continue our solidarity, follow personal infection prevention and get tested if we’re experiencing any symptoms. He reminds people that 29 people in Iceland have died. That number is low compared to countries where people have lost control of the spread of the disease. That is thanks to preventative measures and restrictions. In the United States, 3,000 are dying due to COVID-19 each day, which would be equivalent to 3 Icelanders dying per day.
Óskar goes over how vaccinations work. When the substance is injected, it activates the body’s immune response, so it is normal to experience aches and fatigue. It’s a workout for the body. Just like a workout at the gym, we might feel sore, but we don’t cry over feeling sore after a workout. We know the historical successes of vaccinations: remember the measles, polio, laryngitis and others, which are nearly or completely eradicated.
How will the vaccinations be administered? The healthcare centres gather information and call people in for vaccinations. People receive a bar code, which gets scanned and they receive the first injection. 19-23 days later, they get the second injection. The system will be tested today with frontline healthcare workers. If there are any flaws in the system, we’ll find them now and fix them.
The panel is now open for questions: Þórólfur is asked when the vaccine doses we’ve acquired will arrive and when we will achieve herd immunity. He says it is impossible to answer that question for several reasons. We don’t know when we’ll reach herd immunity as there are certain variables that prevent us from having all the information on when vaccination goals will be met.
Are authorities worried over people relaxing too much in their personal infection preventions? Not yet, they hope people will celebrate the development but still be very careful.
Authorities previously stated that we would receive 3,000-4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine per week throughout January and February, has that changed? Þórólfur states that the 10,000 doses we received yesterday should last us the first few weeks of January. The next shipment will arrive in the second half of January and it might be a larger shipment.
Þórólfur believes that if nursing home residents are all vaccinated, nursing home restrictions might be lifted. As for other restrictions, such as gyms reopening, they still depend on the pandemic’s development.
Þórólfur is asked why the COVID-19 vaccinations are not mandatory in Iceland. Historically, vaccinations have never been mandatory in Iceland except for the smallpox vaccine. Yet vaccination campaigns have been successful and a high ratio of Icelanders get vaccinated, around 95%. The Icelandic public is willing to be vaccinated and understands the importance. As long as that is the case, making vaccinations mandatory isn’t wise, says Þórólfur.
Asked about recommendations for New Year’s Eve celebrations, Rögnvaldur states that they are just the same as for Christmas: stay in your Christmas bubble and don’t gather in crowds over 10. Wear a mask if necessary at NYE celebrations, Rögnvaldur adds.
Do authorities aim to give everyone the same vaccine? No, not necessarily says Þórólfur. He says all the vaccines are good. Authorities are not expecting issues with vaccine shipment or quality, although they are always a possibility. If they occur, they’ll simply continue working on vaccinating people according to prioritisation plans.
Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by underlining the common refrain that the pandemic isn’t over. He wishes the public a happy new year and thanks them for their contributions to civil defence efforts. The briefing has ended.