COVID-19 in Iceland: Border Regulations and Mask Use Key to Domestic Freedom Skip to content
Víðir and Þórólfur COVID-19
Photo: Almannavarnir / Facebook.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Border Regulations and Mask Use Key to Domestic Freedom

Icelandic health authorities will relax domestic COVID-19 restrictions this week, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated at a briefing in Reykjavík today. Þórólfur’s recommendations are being reviewed by the government, which is expected to issue updated restrictions in the coming days. The Chief Epidemiologist declined to discuss the details of his recommendations but stated tightened border restrictions, which now require arriving travellers to undergo three tests and quarantine, have given authorities room to relax domestic restrictions.

Iceland has not reported a single domestic case of COVID-19 out of quarantine since February 1, and only 10 cases in quarantine this month. Nevertheless, authorities stressed the importance of keeping up individual infection prevention to stave off a new wave in the case that domestic infections do pop up.

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

 

Stay tuned for a live-tweeting of Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 briefing, beginning shortly at 11.03am. On the panel: Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases yesterday and 1 at the border. Total active cases: 25. 9 are in hospital. 10,530 have been fully vaccinated, or 2.9% of the population.

The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by going over statistics regarding the border and travel from abroad. The average number of travellers arriving from abroad has been decreasing over the past months, Víðir says. In the last few weeks, the number has been around 170-180 per day. Víðir says new border regulations have gone smoothly, most passengers arriving presented a PCR test certificate as required, or a vaccination certificate or certificate of an antibody test.

Þórólfur takes over. Over the past week, 12 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed at the border, 8 with an active infection. There were 2 new domestic cases diagnosed over the past week, both in quarantine. There is one patient with an active case of COVID-19 in hospital: they were admitted last Friday. No one is in the ICU with COVID-19, 8 are in hospital recovering from COVID but no longer have active infections.

Infections at the border are few, possibly because there are fewer travellers. Around 1% of travellers has been testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Procedures at the border have gone well. We’ll have to watch carefully what happens in the next few days, says Þórólfur. The conditions for further relaxing restrictions domestically are that we stay vigilant at the border, says the Chief Epidemiologist.

Þórólfur has sent his suggestions to the Minister of Health for relaxing restrictions and presumes they will take effect in the middle of this week, although that’s subject to the Minister’s approval. Þórólfur declines to discuss the details of his recommendations at this time. Þórólfur has also sent new recommendations for school restrictions but won’t disclose the details of these relaxed restrictions either, as the government will have to discuss them first. Regarding relaxing restrictions, Þórólfur states there will always be some among the public who think authorities are going too fast and others who think we’re going to slow. The key is to keep up individual infection prevention to stave off a new wave, in the case that domestic infections do pop up.

Vaccinations are ongoing, and 6,000 are scheduled to receive their first or second dose this week. There are no updates regarding vaccine shipment schedules for April or the second quarter. Þórólfur: Despite uncertainty in vaccine distribution schedules, I consider it likely that we’ll receive vaccines more rapidly but we’ll have to be prepared for the possibility that it will go slower than we hope.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is pressed to reveal details of his recommendations for relaxed restrictions. Þórólfur won’t disclose more details regarding his recommendations but states that we have to be very careful with relaxing restrictions on bars and clubs as that was where the last wave started.

Asked about mask use, Þórólfur states that it surprises him how emotional people can get when discussing masks. At this point, he won’t recommend that we stop using masks, and polls show that people are largely positive towards mask use. We’ll reach a point where masks won’t be mandatory anymore but people who want to are free to use them.

Þórólfur is hopeful for the summer. If no new vaccine-resistant variants of the virus present themselves, vaccinations proceed according to schedule and until then, we keep the border clear, there’s nothing to stop us from having a looser rein this summer, he says. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason: what’s important is not the regulations prescribed by authorities, rather how individuals behave.

Víðir states that the vast majority of people are behaving well, both in the capital area and the countryside where many are currently travelling on winter vacations. Þórófur states that even though we haven’t really had community spread of infections in February, there’s still a danger of new infections entering the country and spreading into the community. On the other hand, we have much stricter regulations at the border now so the situation is different from last summer. There’s always a chance that the pandemic can rear its head again but that’s something we’re going to have to live with, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur will not speculate on how border restrictions may chance once a majority of the nation is vaccinated, it also depends on how the pandemic progresses in the countries around us. From May 1 authorities hope to lift quarantine restrictions for arriving travellers from low-risk areas. Asking people for a negative PCR test certificate before arrival and testing them again at the border is not really an encumbering restriction, says Þórólfur. Víðir adds that some of the restrictions at the border are set in co-operation with countries around us, for example in the Schengen Area.

“Will there be fewer briefings now that things are going well domestically?” Víðir says briefings are to continue twice weekly for the time being, as long as restrictions are being updated regularly. Víðir adds that it might be superstitious, but authorities are a little hesitant to have fewer information briefings: the last couple of times they did, it wasn’t long before infection rates went up.

Asked about his health, Víðir says he is still recovering from his bout of COVID-19. He hasn’t regained his full strength or his sense of taste and smell. Víðir: “I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.”

Þórólfur is asked about confirmation parties, traditionally held in spring, and sports tournaments. As usual, he won’t disclose details of planned restriction relaxations or speculate for the coming weeks and months.

Regarding border restrictions, Þórólfur’s position is that we should keep on doing what’s been working for us, only making changes with caution.

When asked about the possibility of a future need for annual COVID-19 vaccinations, Þórólfur states that the virus could develop to be similar to flu or cold viruses, that spread without causing serious illness. He stresses that he doesn’t know, nor does anyone at this point.

Updated school regulations will be presented to school authorities as well as the public in the next few days.

“If another wave of the pandemic occurs, is there a benchmark, such as number of cases, that authorities will use to decide restrictions?” Authorities’ reactions will be based on how and where the wave happens. They’ll use the knowledge gained from the third wave.

The briefing has ended.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 information briefing on Thursday, February 25 at 11.03am UTC.

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