Icelandic authorities held a bi-weekly COVID-19 briefing at 11.00am this morning in Reykjavík. Though Iceland reports the lowest infection rate in Europe, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed concern over the number of new infections in recent days, and the proportion out of quarantine. The data indicate the current wave could be on the rise again.
Below is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live tweets 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. Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, a fixture at authorities’ briefings, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation. He is currently not experiencing any symptoms.
Numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 11 new domestic cases yesterday, 3 in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Total active case numbers continue to drop and are at 166. 45 are in hospital and 2 in intensive care.
Rögnvaldur begins the briefing. He says while the Advent season is typically one of gatherings for Icelanders, this year will be different. There are nevertheless many ways we can celebrate together. Authorities are preparing guidelines for Christmas festivities and gatherings that will be published soon.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers. In general, the wave we are fighting is waning, but in recent days we have been diagnosing more people outside of quarantine which is a certain cause for concern. 11 people were diagnosed yesterday, only 3 of them in quarantine. All new cases were in the capital area. A similar number of tests were conducted yesterday as in previous days and Þórólfur urges everyone experiencing symptoms to get tested.
Domestic cases have been going down thanks to public solidarity but we’re seeing indications that the trend might be changing, due to the increase of cases out of quarantine. This is also supported by data from the University of Iceland statistics team, says Þórólfur. Many of the infections can be traced to large shopping centres and house parties. Þórólfur urges the public to be careful when gathering in the coming days. We’re seeing more cases at the border and we need to be careful.
Þórólfur has sent his recommendations for updated restrictions from December 2 to the Minister of Health but he is not ready to divulge the details at this point. If the community spread of infection is more than previously anticipated, he may revise these suggestions. Many of the public are calling for restrictions to be lifted, but we can’t lose what we’ve worked so hard to achieve, says Þórólfur. It’s the actions we’ve taken that have given us this success, says Þórólfur, we have to stay vigilant.
Director of Health Alma Möller takes over. The healthcare system is under less strain than in the past few weeks and healthcare centres outside the capital area are mostly doing well. The Directorate of Health monitored the status of healthcare institutions and medical services during the first wave and issued a report. It will do so again for this wave. There has been less disruption to healthcare during his wave, more communication with patients but it has been increasingly electronic. Joint replacement surgeries were postponed less this wave than during the first one but waiting lists have now increased, even though many such operations were done this summer.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur and Alma are asked about visits to hospice/palliative care wards. Visitations are heavily restricted. If the pandemic is increasing again, is it time to review these restrictions? Þórólfur says the guidelines are issued by the wards and institutions themselves. Alma adds that they are taking into account the safety of not only patients but also staff and that it’s their prerogative.
Have you thought about long lines outside shops? Yes, we have. All gatherings are a concern. We encourage everyone to be careful wherever they come into contact with others. Restrictions are reviewed regularly.
Þórólfur is pressed to discuss his recommendations for restrictions from December 2. He says it’s a long time until then and if the pandemic’s development is in fact changing, they might change as well. He will not discuss his suggestions in further detail at this point. Þórólfur says he is considerably concerned about the numbers in recent days, especially as infections can be traced to people being less careful, for example at social gatherings.
Businesses and institutions have called for more predictability in measures. The Civil Protection Department discussed setting up a warning system similar to the weather warning system. What is the status on that? Þórólfur expresses his understanding that it’s hard for businesses to plan ahead and he wished it was easier to predict the pandemic. But it is hard to be predictable with preventative measures when the pandemic itself is unpredictable. The colour-coded warning system is in the final stages of development and will be presented to the Minister of Health today and likely to the government tomorrow.
Þórólfur underlines the success of border testing and restrictions, which have managed to prevent around 400 active cases from spreading into the community. Þórólfur says infections are not limited to one demographic or specific groups.
Will the police be on alert tomorrow at shopping centres because of black Friday? There are no particular measures planned, says Rögnvaldur but encourages the public to practice personal preventative measures. Online shopping is a safer option. Þórólfur agrees and expresses concern that people are being herded into large shopping centres. Anything could happen.
Are most positive cases at the border among tourists or Icelanders? Þórólfur says the vast majority of those who have tested positive at the border are local residents. Asked about COVID-19 vaccines, Þórólfur says the Icelandic government has a deal with AstraZeneca, the European Union has negotiated with others and we have an option to negotiate with Pfizer. It looks like Iceland will have enough vaccines for everyone.
Will we be able to lift restrictions once at-risk groups are vaccinated or do we have to wait for the less vulnerable to be vaccinated as well? Þórólfur says it is much too early to discuss such details but mentions that vaccines will require two doses separated by a few weeks. Þórólfur says he has no definite information about when a vaccine will be available in Iceland.
How is Víðir feeling? Rögnvaldur says that Víðir has begun to experience mild symptoms but is doing well. Víðir sends his greetings. Rögnvaldur ends the briefing by reminding the public to practice personal preventative measures and work together to fight the pandemic.
Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.