At a briefing in Reykjavík today, Icelandic authorities reminded the public to stay on their guard despite the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Iceland currently has 64 active cases of the disease, a number that has been regularly dropping and has not been as low since September of last year. Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection, expressed his concern that the public was relaxing more than warranted, reminding that a fresh local outbreak could still occur.
Vaccination against COVID-19 began on December 29 in Iceland, and over 4,500 have received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines since that date: mostly front-line workers and nursing home residents. Per the current distribution schedule, Icelandic health authorities hope to vaccinate most individuals belonging to priority groups by the end of March.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller, Assistant to Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
Yesterday’s numbers are in on covid.is. Iceland reported 1 new domestic case (in quarantine at the time) and 4 at the border. Total active cases: 64. 17 are in hospital. 4,546 have completed vaccination for COVID-19.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur says numbers have been good over the weekend but encourages the public to continue to get tested if they have any symptoms. We’re seeing indications that people are relaxing more than is warranted, says Rögnvaldur. More people are gathering and in larger groups, and we urge people not to gather unless necessary.
Þórólfur takes over. He states that the weekend had good numbers: few cases and most in quarantine, although fewer tests were administered. We don’t have recent information on the viral strains being diagnosed but deCODE has told us that 43 people have caught the British strain, 7 domestically. The domestic cases had all been in close contact with people arriving from abroad and this strain hasn’t spread locally. “I think it’s important to keep asking people experiencing symptoms to get tested and stay at home until they’ve received a negative result, it’s the key to our work in stopping the spread of the virus.” -Þórólfur
Þórólfur: A considerable number of people are testing positive at the border. This reflects the increased spread of the virus abroad, so I repeat my recommendation to the public to not travel abroad unless absolutely necessary. Þórólfur does not believe there’s reason to relax restrictions further at this moment.
We’re sitll waiting for news of Pfizer and Moderna’s distribution schedule after February and news of AstraZeneca’s pending market authorisation in Europe. This week we will receive 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 2,000 from Pfizer, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur and [deCODE CEO] Kári Stefánsson’s negotiations with Pfizer on vaccine research that would provide vaccines for the whole nation are still ongoing and there’s nothing new to report.
Alma takes over. Our current status in fighting the virus is good, especially compared to our neighbouring countries, she says. A new report from the ECDC last week covers the new strains wreaking havoc on the countries around us, such as the British strain. It managed to spread despite harsh social restrictions. The British restrain is more infectious, but it has not yet been proved conclusively that it’s more deadly, though mortality rates in the UK are higher than ever. Authorities believe the vaccines currently available are effective against the strain, but the situation will continue to be monitored closely.
The South African strain is another one authorities are watching closely: it has been detected in the Nordic countries and it might be resistant to vaccines. The Brazilian strain has caused increased workload on local healthcare systems but local authorities don’t have much information on the development of that strain. The World Health Organisation is asking nations to increase their efforts in sequencing COVID-19 viral strains. deCODE sequences 100% of infections in Iceland and has done so since the pandemic began, and we’re very grateful for their efforts, says Alma.
Early detection is still the cornerstone of our fight against the virus, says Alma. Alma goes over the symptoms of the virus, and reminds everyone to get tested if they experience any of these symptoms and stay at home until they receive their result. “We must stick this out and not rest on our laurels.”
The panel opens for questions. Reporter: Why aren’t we satisfied with our success? Answer: In our experience, when we are diagnosing fewer infections, we’re likely to get another spike. If people relax too much, it takes a lot less for a new wave of infections to spread and can be much harder to contain it. When asked about relaxing restrictions, Þórólfur reminds the public that it’s less than two weeks since authorities last relaxed restrictions and says there’s no reason to hurry. Þórólfur: We can wait and see what happens in the coming days and weeks – authorities are constantly re-evaluating restrictions.
Þórólfur is asked about delays in vaccine distribution which will have the effect that vaccination of all priority groups will not be completed before the end of March. Þórólfur stated that this isn’t news: individuals in priority groups number around 40,000 and according to current plans we’ll have received enough doses for 30,000 people by the end of March. Þórólfur still hopes that AstraZeneca will receive their market authorisation in Europe soon and that they’ll receive additional doses of that vaccine before the end of March.
A reporter asks about vaccination efforts in other European nations, claiming Denmark has gotten further in its efforts despite receiving vaccines through the same European contracts as Iceland. Þórólfur states that he can’t speak for Danish authorities.
Þórólfur is not ready to give projections for when each individual will be vaccinated as he doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep. There’s still much uncertainty about vaccine distribution but if we receive more vaccines, we might be able to make more detailed plans, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur is not ready to make any predictions for next summer regarding large gatherings: there are still too many variables such as vaccine distribution and the looming possibility of vaccine-resistant viral strains. Asked about how many have ordered certificates to confirm their vaccination, Þórólfur says he does not have information on the certificates.
When asked about reported parties in the capital area over the weekend, Rögnvaldur replies that authorities are concerned that the public might be relaxing too much. Asked about anti-restriction protests, Þórólfur states there have been some but fortunately groups haven’t been large. Restrictions here are relatively mild. There is a chance protests will increase if they need to tighten restrictions again but he hopes that won’t be the case.
Where can people in priority groups receive information on when they will have access to vaccines? Þórólfur: That differs depending on their municipality. If people believe they are being forgotten, the simplest thing to do is to contact their healthcare centre. While not everyone will receive the vaccine at the same time, I can confirm that no one will be left behind, says Þórólfur. In the end, everyone will be able to get the vaccine.
When asked if they’re relaxing restrictions too quickly, Þórólfur states that he has repeatedly stated that he thinks it’s important not to relax restrictions too quickly and that the current regulations are in place until February 17. Rögnvaldur closes the briefing with his usual reminders to the public: “This is not over, we must keep our guard up.”
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, January 28 at 11.03am.