On February 19, 2021, Icelandic authorities began requiring travellers from abroad to present a negative PCR test certificate before departure to the country. This certificate requirement was added in addition to testing at the border, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test. Since that date, 17 travellers have tested positive in their follow-up test after quarantine, despite testing negative before departure and again at the border. In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated that negative PCR tests before departure were not a sure way to prevent the active cases from crossing the borders, and quarantine for travellers was still essential. Vaccinated travellers are exempt from quarantine and testing in some cases.
Icelandic authorities temporarily suspended use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine one week ago due to reports of blood clots among individuals who had received the drug. European and international authorities have since declared that there are no causal links between the vaccine and the incidents and that the drug is safe to use. A final decision on its continued use in Iceland is expected shortly.
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of today’s briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Director of Health Alma Möller.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 1 new domestic case (outside quarantine) and 1 at the border. Total active cases: 32. 14,104 have been fully vaccinated (3.82% of the population) and another 23,075 have received their first shot.
New domestic restrictions have taken effect today, but they are largely unchanged from the previous restrictions. The 50-person gathering limit remains the same.
The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers. One person was diagnosed with COVID-19 yesterday domestically, outside of quarantine. Contact tracing is underway but the origin of the infection has not yet been found. Fewer samples were taken yesterday, just under 500. Þórólfur believes and hopes that the small group outbreak that occurred last week has been contained.
People continue to test positive at the border and more than has been the case in recent weeks. 5,000, have entered the country since the new regulations were implemented Feb. 19 requiring a negative PCR test certificate. 4,700 of those have been tested and 34 of them have tested positive for an active infection: half of those in the border test and half in the follow-up test five days later. Þórólfur says the data shows that requiring a negative PCR test certificate is not in and of itself a secure way to ensure infections don’t enter the country.
One person was admitted to hospital with an active COVID-19 infection two days ago. That is the only person currently in hospital due to COVID-19. Þórólfur encourages people to get tested if they have any symptoms whatsoever, particularly in light of the positive case diagnosed yesterday outside of quarantine.
Þórólfur says the new domestic restrictions will remain in effect until April 9 and are largely unchanged from the previous ones. It is important to maintain caution, now is not the time to relax further, he says.
Þórólfur addresses new border regulations that will take effect soon permitting vaccinated individuals to eschew quarantine and testing at the border. He points out that this has been the case since January 15 for travellers from within the EEA/EU, and around 5% of travellers since then have presented certificates of vaccination and been exempt from quarantine and testing at the border. This has also been the case for people with international vaccination certificates issued by the WHO. Thus the new regulations are not actually “new.”
New data from Israel shows that the risk of infection from those who have been vaccinated is little. Thus Þórólfur suggested earlier this month that all vaccination certificates be accepted regardless of the traveller’s country of origin. Þórólfur says that the Minister of Justice’s decision to open the outer borders of the Schengen territory to all those with a vaccination certificate was made without consultation with him. He does not know when the new regulation will take effect.
Icelandic authorities are waiting to hear from European authorities regarding the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The European Medicines Agency and the EU have announced recently that there are no causal links between the vaccine and blood clots. Þórólfur will meet with Nordic and European colleagues today to discuss the issue. A decision on continued use of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be reached shortly.
Þórólfur continues to urge people to get tested as soon as they experience any symptoms. The infection yesterday means that the virus hasn’t been eradicated from the community and we need to stay alert. Alma mentions that the situation in Iceland is good but we don’t have to search far to find worse situations. Let’s not get overconfident in our success. If infections arise, we need to keep up our personal infection preventions and get tested as soon as possible.
Alma discusses Iceland’s contact tracing app. Contact tracing is a cornerstone of Iceland’s success in containing the pandemic. Our contact tracing team are extremely efficient, but we will also be updating the COVID-19 tracing app in the coming days, says Alma. The new version will use Bluetooth but users’ privacy is still a priority. As before, users need to authorise a request from the contact tracing team so that the new features are activated.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur does not yet know if yesterday’s domestic case was of the British variant, results from sequencing should be available tonight. The individual did not attend any large gatherings or visit many public places, everyone they have come into contact with will be contacted.
Þórólfur has some concerns about the decision to open Schengen borders, particularly how they will complete all necessary procedures if there is great demand for travelling to Iceland. Accepting certificates of vaccinations and antibodies is what we aim to do in the long run, but exactly at what point we should open the borders more or less, people can have all sorts of opinions on that. If people who are coming are vaccinated or have already contracted the disease, we can be pretty safe. But we have to ensure the certificates are authentic, Þórólfur says.
The vaccine distribution schedule changes regularly but by the end of April, we should have had at least 140,000 doses. We still haven’t had any information on the Janssen distribution schedule. A
lma states that there’s everything to be gained by maintaining our current success, and reminds the public that we have many more freedoms than most other people around the world. Alma: Follow the guidelines. We can do this. Þórólfur agrees and doesn’t have much to add. “We know what we have to do and we know what works.”
Þórólfur addresses the colour-coding system that will take effect from May 1. Authorities are working on the solutions and systems that will be in place come spring. Þórólfur’s role as Chief Epidemiologist is still to make suggestions based on his best knowledge and what he thinks will be the best way to keep infection numbers down. Of course, there’s still uncertainty, even if people call for predictability. Þórólfur says his recommendations for the border will be issued closer to May 1 in response to how the situation is at that time. Alma adds that she believes we must be prepared for the possibility to reconsider plans if the situation changes. The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next briefing, scheduled for Thursday, March 25, at 11.03am UTC.