Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist encouraged customers who had visited H&M’s downtown Reykjavík location in recent days to proceed carefully and monitor their symptoms in a briefing this morning. A group outbreak has emerged involving at least two employees at the clothing store, but as the shop followed infection prevention regulations well, it is unlikely any customers were infected. The store’s customers do not have to go into quarantine as a result of the outbreak.
Over 20% of Iceland’s population is now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 while over 42% have received at least one dose. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason underlined that while these numbers are good, they are not enough to prevent large group outbreaks. Þórólfur stated the outbreak was a reminder that the nation must proceed slowly when it comes to relaxing restrictions. The current restrictions, which cap gatherings and 50 people and mandate 2-metre social distancing, expire on May 27.
Pressure on Border Control
The number of cases at Iceland’s borders has been decreasing in recent weeks, which Þórólfur attributes to the government’s current border measures. The rising number of tourists does present a challenge for officials, who must review vaccination and antibody certificates as well as conduct testing of all arriving travellers. The Ministry of Health has asked biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics to help process PCR tests through June, which will relieve pressure on the National University Hospital, according to Þórólfur.
Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson encouraged the public to tread carefully in the next 4-6 weeks, which he referred to as the “final sprint” in the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities stressed the importance of ongoing individual infection prevention as well as groups such as athletic organisations doing their part to prevent infection spread. Icelandic athletes heading to the Olympics will be vaccinated with a special delivery of doses from vaccine manufacturer Pfizer.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson.
Yesterday’s COVID-19 numbers have been updated on covid.is:
Domestic cases: 4 (3 in quarantine)
Border cases: 2
Total active cases: 50 (3 in hospital)
Vaccinated (at least one dose): 156,058 (42.2% of pop)
Fully vaccinated: 76,259 (20.6% of pop)
The briefing has begun. Víðir starts by mentioning quarantine monitoring, a recently-started initiative. He says it has largely been successful partly thanks to a diverse staff with varied language skills.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers, stating that yesterday’s four infections were mostly among people who had very recently gone into quarantine. All cases diagnosed yesterday were connected to a workplace group infection. Widespread testing around the people who tested positive today and yesterday has begun and Þórólfur exects more cases to surface. “It’s clear the virus is still out there and we must continue to expect small group infections to occur,” Þórólfur says.
Infections at the border continue to decline, Þórólfur believes that is due to the government’s border measures. The new domestic cases are of the British variant. While the Indian variant has been detected at the border, authorities have not detected any domestic spread of that variant. Þórolfur mentions that an increase in tourism is expected over the coming weeks, leading to increased pressure on border testing staff.
Þórólfur believes that by mid-June, vaccinations will be widespread enough for further relaxations of border measures if nothing unexpected comes up. In June, we will have data and experience from current restrictions allowing us to make informed decisions on changes to border regulations. The Ministry of Health has asked deCODE genetics to help process PCR tests throughout June which will lighten the load for the National Hospital. Þórólfur thanks the company for their help. (deCODE will be helping with processing border tests.)
Þórólfur mentions research into serious side effects of vaccinations in Iceland, which will be performed by independent parties. The Icelandic Medicines Agency has received around 20 reports of deaths and 20 reports of blood clot issues in Iceland following COVID-19 vaccination. Most are among elderly people with underlying illnesses and therefore unclear whether there is a link to the vaccination. There has been no general increase in blood clots within the population since vaccination began in Iceland. That’s a good thing, says Þórólfur, though the reports will be investigated further.
We can realistically be hopeful for brighter times ahead by mid-June, says Þórólfur. We should be in a good situation by then and be able to relax restrictions. While vaccination is progressing well, we’re seeing younger people test positive and be hospitalised, so widespread group infections could still have serious effects.
The panel takes questions. Þórólfur is asked about relaxing restrictions, including mask use. He replies that loosening mask requirements is one of the relaxations we can start to implement soon. While requirements will be lifted, Þórólfur believes that there will still be a group of people who want to wear masks. Authorities will continue to lift restrictions despite low numbers of new cases. What’s most important now is individual infection prevention/individual behaviour, says Þórólfur.
There are no indications at the moment that vaccines are ineffective against certain variants. If that becomes the case, it will be necessary to impose restrictions once more. That could prove difficult as people start to travel again.
Þórólfur is asked about the latest group infection. He states that he expects more cases to surface but infection prevention in the workplace (a downtown clothing shop) was adequate and he hopes that will prevent further infections. H&M customers will not need to quarantine but are encouraged to monitor their health and get tested if they have even the mildest of symptoms.
Group infections in small communities such as those that have come up in Þorlákshöfn and Skagafjörður can be contained relatively easily, it’s harder to contain them in the city, Víðir says. There’s always a risk of contact tracing and curbing the virus spread taking longer in Reykjavík than in less populated communities. Víðir is asked about infection prevention in sporting events, stating that he’s unhappy after seeing images of improper mask use and lack of infection preventions at sporting events. As sporting events start up once more, sports clubs will have to rise to the challenge of ensuring proper infection preventions. They need to do better. Þórólfur agrees, adding that the sports industry put great pressure on authorities to lift restrictions on athletic events and now they have to show that they can do so safely.
Þórólfur is asked about priority vaccinations granted to Iceland’s Eurovision Song Contest delegation. He stated that the government was sending a group of people on Iceland’s behalf to a high-risk area where groups from across Europe gather and spend a long period together. Their assessment was that it was risky for the delegation, and the assessment proved correct as two members of the delegation have contracted the disease. It would have been better to vaccinate them sooner as the vaccine had not yet reached full efficacy to prevent infection but hopefully it would help these two individuals stave off serious illness.
As for other groups in similar situations, such as athletes set to compete abroad, Pfizer doses are being imported to Iceland specifically for athletes headed to the Olympics. These doses are an addition to the vaccine allocated to Iceland through contractual agreements. Þórólfur believes he was right in granting the Eurovision delegation vaccinations before their trip but of course, people can and will have differing opinions.
Þórólfur is asked about women under the age of 55 who have already received a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine before its use was restricted to outside their age group. They have the option to accept the second dose of AstraZeneca or receive a dose of another vaccine instead. Þórólfur will not give out specific advice for these women but notes that people with underlying conditions shouldn’t get their second shot of AstraZeneca. If everything went well the first time, it’s highly likely that the second shot poses no threat. If not, they should choose another vaccine. It’s OK to get two doses of different vaccines but there’s an increased possibility of mild side effects such as muscle aches & fever.
Víðir closes the briefing, calling the next 4-6 weeks the “final sprint.” Let’s stick it out, he says. Go get tested if you’re experiencing even the most minor symptoms.
Let’s watch out for each other and have a good day.