Iceland will relax domestic COVID-19 restrictions from Wednesday, January 13 as it tightens restrictions at the border. In a briefing today, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason celebrated Iceland’s success in keeping the pandemic at bay and stated it was time to relax domestic restrictions to ease the burden on individuals and businesses. He expressed concern, however, at the high number of cases being diagnosed at the border. Þórólfur has proposed tightened border restrictions that could involve mandatory border testing or quarantine in government facilities.
Gathering Limit Up to 20
Iceland will relax domestic restrictions this Wednesday, lifting the gathering limit from ten to 20 people and reopening gyms. Additional restrictions on athletic and cultural events will also be relaxed. Though the pandemic is under control domestically, a high number of COVID-19 cases are being diagnosed among travellers arriving in Iceland. Most arriving travellers undergo testing at the border, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test. Those who refuse testing may currently undergo 14-day quarantine instead, but there have been indications of a few individuals breaching quarantine regulations while on 14-day quarantine.
Mandatory Testing or Hotel Quarantine
To prevent the spread of cases arriving from abroad, Þórólfur has recommended making border testing mandatory for all arriving passengers. The Ministry of Health is currently reviewing whether Icelandic law supports such a measure. If it does not, Þórólfur has suggested requiring those who choose 14-day quarantine stay at government-run quarantine facilities. As of Wednesday, children arriving in the country will also be required to quarantine along with their parents or guardians (they were previously not required to do so), though they will continue to be exempt from testing barring extenuating circumstances.
First Vaccines from Moderna to Arrive Tomorrow
Iceland is expected to receive 1,200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, its first doses from the manufacturer. They will be used to complete vaccination of frontline healthcare workers in the Reykjavík capital area. Moderna is expected to send an additional 1,200 doses to Iceland every two weeks until the end of March. Iceland is scheduled to receive an additional 5,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer this month.
Below is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of today’s COVID-19 briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection. Special guest: Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, supervisor of Iceland’s quarantine hotels.
From January 13, arriving travellers who refuse testing at the border will be required to complete their 14-day quarantine in government facilities. Less than 1% of arriving travellers have refused border testing since it was implemented last year. Passengers will continue to have the option of undergoing double testing and five-day quarantine at a private location.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 3 new domestic cases yesterday (all in quarantine) and 17 at the border. Total active cases: 143. 20 in hospital, none in ICU.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins by disclosing that on Wednesday, the pandemic risk colour code will likely be lowered from red to orange. Þórólfur takes over and states that the situation over the weekend was good, few diagnoses and most in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. We’re still seeing high numbers of cases at the border, says Þórólfur. There were 17 yesterday, most of them were legal residents of Iceland just as border cases have generally been. Just over 140 active cases are in isolation. None of those in hospital due to COVID-19 have an active infection.
I’m happy to see so few domestic cases and especially how few test positive out of quarantine, but I’m still worried about the number of people testing positive at the border, says Þórólfur. In light of the situation, I have presented recommendations to the Minister of Health to ease restrictions domestically. Updated infection prevention regulations take effect January 13. The actions taken have proven successful at keeping the pandemic at bay and that’s why I think it’s time to allow sports, culture and businesses to get back to normal. Þórólfur emphasises that relaxed restrictions are not an encouragement for people to gather in groups. “We must keep up our personal infection prevention.”
I have sent recommendations to the Minister suggesting that border testing be made mandatory. If that’s not possible, I recommend everyone who chooses the 14-day quarantine (instead of testing) be required to stay at quarantine hotels. Children arriving in the country will be required to quarantine with their parents from January 13. [Children were previously not required to quarantine.]
I encourage locals to not travel abroad if they don’t have a pressing need to do so, says Þórólfur. The pandemic is rising in countries abroad and people can get sick and bring infections to the country when they return.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers of vaccine doses scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks. 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to arrive tomorrow. They will be used to complete vaccination of frontline healthcare workers in the Reykjavík capital area. Following that, Iceland will receive 1,200 doses from the manufacturer every other week until the end of March. They will be used to vaccinate the country’s older generations. The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to receive conditional market authorisation in January and the Janssen vaccine sometime after, the distribution schedules will likely be made available shortly thereafter.
Alma takes over and goes over the investigation of four deaths following COVID-19 vaccinations at nursing homes. The investigation is performed in three stages. It involves a thorough investigation of patients’ medical history and nursing home death statistics. Nothing points to suspicious events or an increase in deaths due to vaccination. The Directorate of Health has also sent requests for data to other Scandinavian countries and they report no suspicious increase in deaths following vaccinations either. Alma stresses the importance of monitoring vaccine side effects as it’s a new drug on the market.
Gylfi takes over to discuss the country’s official quarantine hotels. The Red Cross has operated five quarantine hotels throughout the pandemic, 3 in Reykjavík, 1 in Akureyri and 1 in Egilsstaðir. Right now, there’s only one quarantine hotel in active use [in Reykjavík], but it just filled up so another one will be opened later today. Around 1,200 people have stayed in quarantine hotels in Iceland in the past year, around 530 of them had active COVID-19 infections. Red Cross volunteers have been assisting at the quarantine hotels and they should be thanked for their efforts, says Gylfi.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about tightened restrictions at the border. Are they supported by Icelandic law? Þórólfur points to the Health Ministry, which issues regulations according to laws in effect.
Gylfi is asked about people who will be required to stay at quarantine hotels because they object to being tested at the borders. He does not think many people will opt for staying at a quarantine hotel or that it will be problematic to carry out.
Þóróflur is asked about vaccination distribution and political criticism of Iceland’s decision to acquire vaccines through the EU. He does not think that was a mistake and points to the Ministry of Health for further information.
This morning, it was reported that direct negotiations with other vaccine producers were ongoing and Þóróflur was asked about the status of those negotiations. He says informal discussions are ongoing with several parties but there is nothing to disclose yet.
Gylfi is asked to describe conditions in quarantine hotels. He states that people are isolated in their rooms and receive 3 meals per day and basic services. The volunteers try to supply human interaction to the extent that it is possible but it’s “no celestial stay.”
Are you making any other efforts to get vaccines than through the EU? Þórólfur replies that authorities are trying to accelerate the process as much as possible and also to supply valid scientific data to vaccine production. Þórólfur adds that he is not personally aware of all of the government’s efforts regarding vaccine acquisition but it is being worked on.
Þórólfur states that border testing has been instrumental in curbing the spread of the pandemic in Iceland. “If we hadn’t done that, things would have been much much worse.” How it will be this summer, following some vaccination, we can’t say for sure, and that’s the research we want to do and have been presenting to vaccine producers, says Þórólfur. The more people we vaccinate, the more we can relax restrictions, says Þórólfur.
How many infections can be traced to New Year’s celebrations on the one hand and Christmas on the other? Þórólfur says very few, we’ve had very few infections recently.
Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing: as Þóróflur says, we hope new restrictions will make life easier for people and companies. But they are not a message that we can go back to normal or throw parties. “Don’t fall into the trap of trying to interpret the rules to make them fit what you want to do,” says Rögnvaldur. If we start behaving like we did before the pandemic, the cases will go up again and we’ll have to tighten the rules again. “We know how this works and what we have to do. Let’s wash our hands and keep our distance, we’re all in this together.” The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, January 14.