Quarantine and testing regulation changes that took effect at midnight and upcoming steps to relax restrictions despite record numbers of infections mark a change in direction in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated during a COVID-19 information briefing this morning. The panel also included Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson and Director of Health Alma Möller.
According to the panel, the reason for the change in tactics is the change in the pandemic’s behaviour. With the introduction of the omicron variant, as well as 78% of the nation being fully vaccinated and over 50% having had their booster shot, the National Hospital’s data indicates that the risk of serious illness is much less than it was.
Iceland’s COVID-19 numbers Jan. 25:
Domestic cases: 1,539 (52% in quarantine)
Border cases: 58
Total active cases: 11,744 ⬆️
Hospitalised: 38 (3 in ICU)
14-day incidence rate per 100,000: 4,883 ⬆️
Fully vaccinated: 78%
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
Stay tuned for a live-tweeting of Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 information briefing, beginning shortly at 11:03 AM UTC. On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Director of Health Alma Möller.
New regulations on COVID-19 quarantine took effect in Iceland today, aiming to reduce strain on testing centres, schools, and workplaces.
Iceland reported 1,539 new domestic cases yesterday, a slight drop from the previous day, which was 1,558 and a national record.
The briefing has begun. Víðir starts by noting that tomorrow marks the two year anniversary of the first phase of uncertainty declared in response to COVID in Iceland. He discusses the changes to quarantine regulations that took effect at midnight, stating that it’s normal that it takes a few days to get used to what those rules entail. He sends his regards to schools and teachers, stating they are sure to face challenges ahead.
Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. Infection numbers have been rising, especially over the past few days. The National Hospital’s review of COVID hospitalisations has shown that Omicron leads to fewer cases of serious illness and booster shots also provide significant protection against contracting the variant. There are still several COVID-19 hospitalisations per day, but few admissions to ICU. Most of those infected have the Omicron variant. Serious illness caused by COVID is rarer than before, but still, 0.2% of infected people end up in hospital. Increased rates of infection still pose challenges for the healthcare system.
As the risk of serious illness has decreased, the government intends to relax restrictions. The first step is the changes to testing and quarantine that took effect at midnight. The changes mean that fewer people need to get PCR tests, which is helpful as our testing capacity is limited. People can still get tested if they have symptoms. Special infection prevention precautions will replace quarantine for many people, which is much less restrictive.
Þórólfur still wants to lift restrictions slowly, so as not to experience a backlash. Lifting restrictions can lead to a spike in infections, resulting in increased strain on the hospital, Þórólfur says. Þórólfur: When can we expect the pandemic to end or lessen significantly? With an increased number of infections in society, the end is nigh. Preliminary results of a deCODE genetics and healthcare authorities study indicate that up to 20% of people under 40 have already contracted the virus in Iceland. Þórólfur: About 80% of the nation might need to be infected to reach herd immunity, that might take up to two more months. But brighter times are ahead. Þórólfur: Let’s lift restrictions slowly but surely and not let our excitement ruin the success we’ve had so far.
Director of Health Alma Möller takes over to discuss the situation in the healthcare system. The situation at the National Hospital is getting better, thanks to fewer cases of serious illness and the diligent work of the COVID-19 outpatient ward. Surgeries are still on hold and operating theatres are working at 80% capacity. There is much less strain on healthcare clinics now thanks to the new quarantine and testing regulations. The number of hospital staff members in isolation has risen recently, which is one of the biggest challenges faced by the healthcare system. Staffing is a challenge for nursing homes and welfare services due to infections and quarantining among staff. Administrative staff are however ready to take over in necessary positions, and have done so as has been reported in the news. Alma thanks healthcare and welfare services staff for their good work. Alma emphasises the importance of being careful despite the fact that Omicron is milder. People can still get very sick.
The panel opens for questions. “Is this decision to relax quarantine regulations a change of direction? You’ve previously emphasised the importance of testing and tracing.”
Þórólfur says yes, this constitutes a change of direction, as the nature of the pandemic has changed. Quarantine and testing has placed strain on schools and workplaces and we are now taking a new approach. “Þórólfur, are you giving authorities different options as to how to proceed with regulations, as you have in the past? How do you foresee the lifting of restrictions to proceed?”
Þórólfur says the workflow has been the same as before. He gives suggestions and the government makes the final decision. Þórólfur is asked about PCR tests versus other types of tests that are used more commonly abroad. Þórólfur says he is not familiar enough with methods abroad to comment.
“What happens if we get another dangerous variant? Will we place more emphasis on border control?” Þórólfur says we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it, but there will be many factors to take into account, as always. We have experience of both domestic and border restrictions and we know what works and how.
“Will these new quarantine regulations lead to a drastic spike in cases and how will you respond to that?” Þórólfur says case numbers will likely rise but it is hard to say how much. Authorities will have to continue to monitor the situation and will have to be ready to respond if hospitalisations rise.
“Why do we still have to wear masks even when we’re triple vaccinated? Is that not proof that COVID vaccination is not effective?” While most vaccines stop the transmission of illness as well as serious illness, the COVID-19 vaccine protects against serious illness but doesn’t prevent the spread of the disease as much as we would have liked, Þórólfur answers.
Asked about the side effects of vaccination, Alma says all vaccinations have some side effects, but the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines are much rarer than side effects due to COVID-19 infection. Asked whether Icelandic authorities are vaccinating children to fulfil contract requirements with pharmaceutical companies, Alma says the answer is of course that no: we’re vaccinating them to protect children against serious illness and the risk of long-term effects of COVID.
Víðir takes over to address criticism that journalists can only ask one question at the briefings. He says briefings are scheduled for half an hour but all members of the COVID response team are available for interviews and questions at all times.
Víðir mentions that changes to quarantine regulations will take a few days to settle in but encourages everyone to go over the new regulations, particularly what “special infection precaution” entails. Víðir closes the meeting by reminding the public that Icelandic winters are long and we will likely experience a few bouts of stormy weather before spring, preaching patience and tolerance as we weather the storm that is the pandemic. The briefing has ended.