Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason is calling on the country’s government to clarify the legal framework for requiring travellers to quarantine in designated government-run facilities. Þórólfur expressed his disappointment in a ruling made in the Reykjavík District Court yesterday that found the state had no legal grounds for requiring several travellers to quarantine in a hotel when they had adequate facilities to do so at home. The ruling is being appealed by authorities.
Iceland tightened border regulations on April 1, requiring all travellers arriving from designated high-risk areas for COVID-19 to complete their mandatory five-day quarantine in designated government facilities. The regulation was set after health authorities found travellers were breaching quarantine regulations, leading to community transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several guests at the hotel challenged the regulation in the Reykjavík District Court, which ruled in their favour. The Chief Epidemiologist has spoken in support of the quarantine facilities in Reykjavík, where at least three travellers tested positive for COVID-19 since the facilities began operation last week.
At a briefing today, Þórólfur expressed confidence that authorities would meet their goal of vaccinating a majority of the population against COVID-19 by the end of July 2021. Some 15,000 people are scheduled to receive a jab in the country this week, while 22,344 (6.6% of the population) are already fully vaccinated and an additional 25,915 have received their first dose. Confirmed distribution schedules ensure Iceland will receive enough doses to fully vaccinate 136,000 people by the end of June. That number does not include vaccines from several manufacturers who have yet to confirmed their shipping schedule.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s 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.
The panel will likely address yesterday’s Reykjavík District Court ruling that determined health authorities did not have legal grounds to require a number of travellers to quarantine in government-run facilities in Reykjavík when they had access to adequate facilities at home.
Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has expressed his support of mandatory hotel quarantine for those arriving from high-risk areas, calling on the government to pass legislation in support of the regulation, which took effect April 1.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, all in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Total active cases: 123. 24,344 have been fully vaccinated, 6.6% of the population.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts by going over the news from the eruption. New fissures have opened and the eruption site is closed to the public today. Scientists are working on mapping the new situation at the eruption site and emergency responders are working on new ways to ensure travellers safety.
Back to COVID: Rögnvaldur says we’ve done pretty well so far, managing to keep our healthcare system running and for the most part keeping the pandemic at bay. Infection prevention restrictions are, by nature, restrictive and many have suffered due to them, but our success is not a coincidence. We’ve listened to the experts and worked hard to ensure our success.
Þórólfur takes over. We’re still seeing several new domestic cases each day but the majority have been in quarantine. We’re still seeing cases outside quarantine that have proved hard to trace. We’re not seeing an increase in infection rates, and Þórólfur thanks the public for their efforts in following personal infection prevention. All new domestic infections are of the British variant. The situation at the hospital is good, no one is hospitalised with COVID-19 but we might still expect new hospitalisations. The current domestic regulations are in effect until April 15.
Yesterday, the district court ruled that there aren’t clear legal grounds for making stays in quarantine hotels mandatory for arriving travellers. Þórólfur says he considers the decision “unfortunate” and adds that it will be appealed. Five travellers tested positive at the border yesterday and 18 in total have tested positive with an active infection since March 25, all with the British variant and most of them residents of Iceland. Þórólfur believes that it’s necessary to clarify the legal framework for infection prevention regulations in order to ensure continued success in containing the pandemic in Iceland.
Þórólfur addresses vaccine rollout. Distribution schedules have been confirmed for vaccines for 136,000 people by the end of June. That’s not counting vaccines from several producers who haven’t confirmed their shipping schedule yet. There’s every reason to believe the government will be successful in meeting its goal to vaccinate a majority of the population by the end of July. 15,000 people are scheduled to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this week in Iceland.
Director of Health Alma takes over. She states that even with vaccination efforts revving up, we still haven’t achieved herd immunity and at the moment, the pandemic is soaring in the countries around us. There’s still the threat of new variants entering the country. Infection prevention restrictions at the border have proved a learning experience and things are still up in the air so we still have to be careful domestically.
Get tested as soon as possible if you are experiencing any symptoms, even if they’re mild, Alma says. She cautions that symptoms can vary and goes over the most important symptoms, including cough, fatigue, and muscle aches. It’s important to stay at home until you receive confirmation that you are negative for SARS-CoV-2. Alma is grateful that COVID infection numbers haven’t risen drastically over the past week and thanks healthcare staff for their efforts as well as the public. Let’s continue to stick together and keep a level head. This isn’t over yet but it’s not long now.
The panel opens for questions. A reporter brings up a recent announcement from the European Medicines Agency regarding a link between the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and blood clots. Will it change the approach to vaccinating with AstraZeneca in Iceland? Þórólfur will look into new information on the AstraZeneca vaccine as authorities have done before. Research has shown that younger people are at risk for blood clots. If there’s new information on an increased threat for older people we’ll take that into consideration.
“If you could decide, would you close the borders entirely?” A reporter asks the Chief Epidemiologist. Þórólfur: What we’ve been trying to do is find the people who are carrying an infection and basing our efforts on what’s worked before. I don’t think closing the country is possible, what does that even mean? Þórólfur: There are Icelandic residents abroad who have to be able to come home and people here who have to be able to go abroad for work and I don’t think closing the country is possible. We have to find other ways to minimise risk.
People who choose to leave the quarantine hotels are informed that they need to have suitable accommodation for continuing quarantine. They don’t have the possibility of verifying that. Information on accommodation and rules for quarantine are available at covid.is.
The court case regarding quarantine hotels seems to centre on the definition of quarantine centres and what their role is. Þórólfur hopes that the matter will end with the government being able to require people to spend quarantine in designated government-run facilities. If not, we won’t be able to curb the pandemic as effectively and won’t be able to relax restrictions to the same extent. One of the aspects of the hotel quarantine that was most criticised was guests’ inability to go outside. Alma states that that’s clearly something that needs to be worked out. Asked whether the dissemination of information could be improved for staff and guests in hotel quarantine, Þórólfur said that was likely the case.
Alma emphasises that as vaccination efforts continue, new variants remain a threat, especially as new variants are more likely to infect younger people and lead to serious illness in younger demographics as well as older groups.
“When we finish vaccinating locals 70+ will we continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine?” Probably, until everyone 65+ has been vaccinated. Iceland’s health authorities are looking into the option of administering the second dose for people who have received one dose of AstraZeneca with a different vaccine. No decisions have been made on the matter at this point.
Contact tracing officials are discovering quarantine breaches through viral sequencing. When they discover the spread of new variants, they go back and find the people who brought the cases over the border, who might, when pressed, admit that they didn’t follow quarantine regulations to the letter. People know if they haven’t been following the rules to the letter and are reluctant to tell authorities. Alma emphasises that these breaches are not always intentional and urges those in quarantine to go over the quarantine rules carefully. That’s why the quarantine hotel method was implemented, to eliminate the temptation of breaking the rules. Þórólfur believes that higher fines or more threats of quarantine infraction repercussions aren’t a solution. A more effective approach would be to monitor people in quarantine more closely.
Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by saying that although vaccination deliveries are speeding up, it’s clear this isn’t over yet and we need to keep our guard up. The briefing has ended.