In a briefing in Reykjavík this morning, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist addressed criticism of the new social restrictions that took effect today. The restrictions allow swimming pools to open and operate at 50% capacity, but mandate gyms to remain closed. Gym owners have expressed consternation at the decision, with some even considering taking legal action against authorities. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated that the number of infections in Iceland that have been traced to gyms is sevenfold the number that have been traced to swimming pools.
Authorities also reviewed guidelines for holiday gatherings in the briefing, encouraging locals to limit their socialising to a closed, 1o-person bubble over Christmas and New Year’s.
Below is a lightly edited transcript 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.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, and 2 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 183. 32 are in hospital and 3 in intensive care.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins by saying that this year has been different for all of us and that we must accept that Christmas and New Year’s will be different as well. Updated regulations that took effect today will be in effect until next year, Rögnvaldur reminds the public. He encourages everyone to stick to their “Christmas baubles” and meet only a small, closed group over the holidays (of 10 people). That number of 10 for Christmas baubles does not include people who have recovered from COVID or children born 2005 or later.
Þórólfur takes over to review the numbers. They have been positive in the past few days: yesterday there were four new cases, three of which were in quarantine. There were fewer tests taken yesterday than usual. Þórólfur encourages those with any symptoms to go get tested. Despite the lower number of tests yesterday, the percentage of positive tests was still low, one tenth of what it was at its highest during this wave. Just two of those currently in hospital due to COVID-19 have an active case of the disease. All three in ICU are on ventilators.
We can say that the pandemic has been subsiding here and I’m happy to see how few are diagnosed out of quarantine, says Þórólfur. However, we know how little it takes for things to take a bad turn so we need to continue to be careful, says the Chief Epidemiologist.
Þórólfur discusses the new restrictions and addresses criticism that swimming pools were reopened but not gyms. Þórólfur notes that according to authorities’ data, the number of cases traced to gyms is sevenfold the number of those traced to swimming pools. Gyms are classified as high-risk for infection spread according to institutions around the world, says Þórólfur, whereas swimming pools are generally not. Furthermore, the chlorine in swimming pools kills the virus.
Concerning adult athletic training and why only professional sports are permitted under the new regulations, Þórólfur answers that this was a response to requests from sports organisations. Only top leagues are permitted to resume practicing and they are being cautious and easing restrictions slowly. If everyone were allowed to practice sports again immediately, that would not be a slow easing of restrictions, says Þórólfur. He reminds the public that harsh restrictions have shown results, and while the countries around us are having to tighten restrictions, we’re in a place where we can relax them.
Director of Health Alma Möller takes over. She goes over healthcare data and statistics recorded throughout the pandemic. Prescriptions of antibiotics have gone down 25% during the pandemic in Iceland. Infection prevention regulations are decreasing other infection spread than just the novel coronavirus.
The Directorate of Health monitors the public’s mental health and women are doing slightly worse than men and younger people are doing worse than older people. Emotional and mental well-being measured higher in September than during the summer. It took a dip again in October and November. The number of people who say their mental health is good has decreased: 31% in September, 27% in October and 23% in November. However, those who say their mental health is poor have also decreased in number: 6% in September, 3% in October and November. More anti-depressants have been prescribed in this wave of the pandemic than the first. We are a resilient community, we might bend but we won’t break, says Alma. I urge everyone to seek the healthcare they need, physical or mental. Covid.is has information for people who are experiencing anxiety and loneliness, Alma reminds the public.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about two differing figures he stated regarding the number of COVID-19 infections traced to gyms. Þórólfur says one included a group infection in a boxing facility in Kópavogur and the other did not.
Will you ease or tighten restrictions before January 12 if the situation changes? Þórólfur has no plans of altering the regulations at the moment but he’ll continue to monitor the numbers. There is a clause in the current regulation permitting changes before January 12 if necessary.
Asked about the decision to allow professional athletes to resume training but not reopen gyms, Þórólfur says the distinction between professional athletic training and gyms open to the public is that in profession training, there are limited groups that practice but gyms are open to everyone, increasing the likelihood of spreading the virus wider.
When asked about allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine, Þórólfur says authorities will look into the research and the pharmaceutical company’s directions. Allergic reactions are a known risk of vaccines but severe cases are rare. If they are around 1% that’s serious and could exclude many from getting the vaccine. This will have to be investigated further.
Asked about the timeline for vaccination in Iceland, the Chief Epidemiologist says it depends on how quickly we’ll get the vaccine doses and how many of them we receive to begin with. If we get all the doses we have ordered at once, we could vaccinate very quickly. But if we get them over several months it would take longer. What we do in the meantime (until the majority of the population is vaccinated) will remain to be seen. It depends on how the pandemic develops domestically, says Þórólfur. Current border regulations are in effect until Feb 1 and I can’t say at this moment what I will recommend, there are several different factors that will come into play, says the Chief Epidemiologist. The faster we can vaccinate domestically, the more we can relax, says Þórólfur.
When asked about the possibility of Christmas church services, Þórólfur states that the Health Minister has received requests for in-person services but reminds people that we must ease restrictions slowly. Restrictions are affecting everyone: businesses, shops, gyms, and he is not excited at the prospect of easing restrictions particularly for religious services.
Þórólfur says that his recommendations are based on infection prevention. A doctor always tries to cure his patients with as little treatment as possible in order to prevent harsh side effects. The best way to prevent infection would be if no one went out at all, says Þórólfur, but that would never work and everyone can see that.
When asked why the entire country was still red according to the new COVID risk warning system, despite the low number of infections in some regions, Þórólfur stated that there were several factors that decide the colour. The country was still fully red as the current wave of the pandemic is dying down and we need to remain careful to avoid a relapse. When asked if different gathering limits for funerals (50), restaurants (15) and gatherings at home (10), were too convoluted, Þórólfur answers that behaviour in these situations is different and the numbers aren’t random, rather are based on the likelihood of infection. He adds that the reality is indeed complicated and that this has happened every time that restrictions have been eased: there is unrest over who gets to gather and how. Þórólfur asks the public to look at the big picture instead of picking apart the details.
Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by reminding the public that the pandemic isn’t over, even though there are fewer new cases. “Just look at what’s happening in the countries around us. We don’t want to be where they’re at. This is in our hands: let’s use masks, disinfect, and wash our hands. Let’s do this together.”
Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.