COVID-19 cases are rising at an exponential rate in Iceland, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated at a briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Þórólfur will submit a memorandum regarding domestic restrictions to the Health Minister later today. Iceland lifted all domestic restrictions last June 26 after a majority of the population had been vaccinated. Þórólfur says however that vaccinations are not proving as effective against the Delta variant as experts had hoped. While he declined to discuss the details of the domestic restrictions he will suggest, Þórólfur stated that solidarity has been Iceland’s biggest weapon in curbing infection so far, and will continue to be so.
Iceland loosened border restrictions on July 1, allowing travellers with proof of vaccination or previous infection to enter the country without testing or quarantine. Since that date, 236 people have tested positive for COVID-19 domestically, 213 of them in the past week. These numbers show that infections rates are rising exponentially, Þórólfur stated at the briefing, despite widespread vaccination. The majority of infected people are fully vaccinated.
As of Monday, all travellers to Iceland will be required to present a negative PCR test or antigen test before departure, regardless of their vaccination status. Víðir Reynisson, Director of Civil Protection, encouraged locals arriving from abroad to also get tested for COVID-19 upon arrival though it is not an official requirement. Locals can already register for testing online.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson (left) and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 78 new domestic infections yesterday, 59 out of quarantine and 52 among fully-vaccinated people. No infections were detected at the border. Total active infections have risen to 287.
The briefing has begun. Víðir opens by saying we are facing a new reality now with the changing situation. But we know what we can do and what we must do to tackle the virus. New border regulations take effect on Monday. It is already possible for people returning to the country to register for testing even if they are vaccinated and it is not required. Víðir encourages all locals to get tested upon returning to the country.
Þórólfur takes over. Since the beginning of the month, 236 have tested positive for COVID-19 and 213 in the past week. It is clear therefore that the rate of infection is exponential, he says. Most of the infections are of the Delta variant and differing subvariants. We know the Delta variant is more infectious and causes more serious illness than earlier variants, Þórólfur says.
Data from Israel on the effectiveness of vaccination shows that protection against the Delta variant is lower than previously believed. The Delta variant is spreading fast abroad, both among vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Despite high rates of vaccination in Iceland, Þórólfur says we could see higher rates of infection as well as serious illness. Whether that happens will come to light in the coming weeks.
Nearly 300 are being monitored by the COVID-19 ward though only one is in hospital right now. 6 people are being monitored closely and may require hospitalisation soon. It is clear that the virus has spread rapidly in Iceland despite vaccination, showing that vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing infection is lesser with the Delta variant than we had hoped, Þórólfur states.
Þórólfur reviews the border regulations that take effect on Monday: all travellers, including those vaccinated, will be required to present a negative PCR test before boarding a flight to Iceland. “That measure alone will not stop the spread that is happening domestically,” Þórólfur says. He will send a memorandum to the Health Minister today regarding imposing domestic restrictions. Þórólfur is not ready to discuss what restrictions he will suggest at this time, but he says we know what measures work best to curb the spread.
People who have received the Janssen vaccine will be invited to receive a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine. These vaccinations will be given starting in late August.
The battle against COVID-19 is not close to being over, Þórólfur says, even though we can celebrate our successes from time to time. New variants and situations with vaccination can come up, as we are seeing now. We need to use the measures we know work. Solidarity has been our biggest weapon so far and will continue to be so, Þórólfur says.
The panel opens for questions. “Should we have imposed border restrictions sooner?” Þórólfur: we can always debate after the fact what the best decision would have been. But it’s good to impose restrictions as soon as possible.
Þórólfur says 4-6 weeks must pass between receiving vaccination and then a follow-up booster shot, as will be offered to those who have received the Janssen vaccine.
“What are the reasons that we are imposing restrictions, considering that the majority of locals are vaccinated?” Þórólfur says there is a rise in hospitalisations and extreme symptoms. It is better to react now rather than wait until we have an epidemic of hospitalisations, says Þórólfur. We have had many measures in place previously that have been successful in curbing previous waves and we will do so again. This is nothing new, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur says there are no concrete numbers released regarding hospitalisations or deaths due to COVID-19 in other countries with high vaccination rates such as the UK and Israel. Those figures are developing in real time right now.
“Will we face tightening and loosening restrictions for the foreseeable future?” Þórólfur says that the pandemic is not over until it is over everywhere. That could be more many more months. This is a long battle and we have to face that fact, says Þórólfur.
“Will authorities test people heading to the Westman Islands Þjóðhátíð festival?” Þórólfur says Iceland does not have the manpower to test everyone heading to the festival and other festivals across the country during the upcoming July-August long weekend. Víðir agrees: there are tens of thousands of people heading to festivals that weekend across the country. Local police departments are overseeing and discussing measures for such big events but no changes have been planned for the time being.
Víðir closes the briefing by reminding the public to use personal prevention measures, such as keeping a distance, washing hands, and getting tested if symptoms present themselves. Locals arriving home from abroad can register for testing upon arrival and Víðir encourages them to do so. The briefing has ended.