Though domestic restrictions were relaxed in Iceland yesterday, the country’s authorities have emphasised to the public that the changes are not an invitation to throw parties. In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson stated that although Iceland has had success in containing the pandemic locally, it takes very little for another wave to start. Authorities continue to examine possibilities for tightening border restrictions to protect domestic success in containing the pandemic.
Obstacles to Tightening Border Regulations
At the briefing, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his continued concern at the rising rates of COVID-19 infection being detected at the Icelandic border. While a few weeks ago, below one per cent of travellers were testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now the daily figure is usually above one per cent and some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive, Þórólfur stated.
Icelandic authorities are concerned that the so-called British strain of SARS-CoV-2, considered more infectious than previous strains, could cause another local wave of infection. So far, 37 have been diagnosed with that strain in Iceland, of which 33 were arriving travellers. The remaining 4 had close ties to those travellers.
Triple Testing a Possibility
Though the British strain has not spread broadly into the community, the Chief Epidemiologist had proposed tightening border and quarantine restrictions, but his recommendations, including mandatory border testing, were met by legal obstacles. He has now recommended that arriving travellers be required to present PCR test results no older than 48 hours before their arrival, in addition to the current quarantine and/or testing required once in Iceland. The Health Ministry is currently reviewing that possibility.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of today’s briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Sigurgeir Sigmundsson, Chief Superintendent of Keflavík Airport Police. Icelandic authorities have been investigating ways to tighten pandemic restrictions at the border.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases (2 in quarantine), and 4 at the border. Total active cases: 169. 19 are in hospital due to COVID-19 and none in intensive care.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur opens by saying “we are now in unique circumstances in Iceland in that we can relax restrictions, that is not the reality in the countries around us.” Our success is due to our solidarity, but this isn’t over, Rögnvaldur continues. There are still infections in the community and very little is needed to trigger a new wave. Even though we’re relaxing restrictions, it is not meant to encourage people to gather in groups and use the additional slack to the fullest. We’re also not intending to encourage people to travel between regions, even though ski slopes are reopening. If we can’t stay focused on preventing infections, we’ll simply have to tighten restrictions again, Rögnvaldur says.
Þórólfur takes over to go over the numbers. One person has been admitted to hospital with an active infection [all others in hospital due to COVID-19 are recovering and no longer have active infections]. Few cases are being caught outside of quarantine, which is good, but we need to stay alert, Þórólfur says.
Þórólfur: it worries me how many active cases are being caught at the border. Even though our system of double testing with a 5-day quarantine has been working well, there’s still a risk of infections crossing the border. A few weeks ago, the daily percentage of positive border tests was well below one percent but now it’s usually above one percent, some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive.
I had suggested to the Ministry of Health that border tests be made mandatory and the option of a 14-day quarantine be eliminated, or, if that was not possible that people be required to spend their 14-day quarantine at a quarantine hotel. The Ministry has determined that they do not have the legal authority to instate those regulations, so instead I have suggested that we require all travellers coming to Iceland to present a certificate of a negative PCR test administered no more than 48 hours prior to arrival. Travellers would still be required to undergo either 14-day quarantine or 5-day quarantine and double testing.
With this measure, the risk of cases crossing the borders and entering the community would be minimised further, and our continued domestic success protected, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur is waiting for the Ministry’s response to this recommendation of additional testing for travellers before arrival to Iceland.
The Moderna vaccinations yesterday were successful and next week, 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive so we can continue vaccinating priority groups. Next week, those who received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in December will receive their second dose.
Sigurgeir takes over and begins by going over the changes to border regulations since the beginning of last year due to the pandemic. Sigurgeir sends his compliments to the officers working to implement government regulations, for their hard work and for often putting themselves at risk of infection. He notes that although some have claimed otherwise, Iceland has never fully closed its borders as many other countries have done. Travel from certain countries is, however, restricted.
The rules at the border have remained unchanged since August 19, with a double test and 5-day quarantine that has proved its effectiveness, or the option of a 14-day quarantine. Sigurgeir mentions that the latest changes at the border pertain to Brexit and its challenges. Sigurgeir states that the last year, “we have learned a lot, worked hard and unity has helped us move forward.”
Sigurgeir has three announcements. First, he reminds locals that they are not permitted to pick arriving travellers up at the airport. Travellers may take taxis or the airport bus, which are governed by strict preventative and disinfection regulations. [Travellers may also drive their own car which has been parked at the airport or rent a car.]
The second announcement is for employers receiving workers from abroad. Even though border officials are very clear with their instructions, there seems to be some difficulty understanding that workers need to complete quarantine before starting work. Sigurgeir encourages employers to shoulder their social responsibility and do their best in ensuring workers arriving from abroad complete quarantine according to regulations.
The third notice is regarding travellers who choose 14-day quarantine with no testing. Border officials have convinced around 210 arriving travellers to undergo double testing instead of 14-day quarantine and many infections were detected in that group. Around 40 arriving travellers who initially refused testing were convinced to undergo border testing when it was paid for. There were over 10 infections detected in that group.
Sigurgeir says police have supported the Chief Epidemiologist’s recommendations to implement stricter regulations at the border, but the legal framework does not support them. He calls for legislation to be updated to fix this. Sigurgeir also calls for clearer regulation on how police can respond to those who refuse to comply with testing or quarantine regulations.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about the PCR test certificates and their safety and efficacy. He states that he can not certify 100% safety but it’s a way to keep infections out since his other recommendations weren’t supported by law.
Þórólfur is asked about two infections that were recently diagnosed at the National Hospital. He adds that one infection was old and no longer contagious and that you can never fully eliminate the possibility of infection, simply minimise risk. Will you be rethinking vaccine priority groups on account of the recent infections at the hospital? No, I don’t think so, if we did, we’d have to vaccinate all healthcare workers before we vaccinate high-risk groups, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur has nothing to add on Pfizer negotiations and the possibility of a mass vaccination study in Iceland and has no details to disclose on negotiations with other vaccine producers.
At the last briefing, people were discouraged from unnecessary travel. Sigurgeir believes that locals are not going on unnecessary trips abroad though some locals went abroad for the holidays and are not returning home. Þórólfur points out that there is more information on vaccination and priority groups on the official government website for COVID-19.
Of course, there will be disagreements on who should be vaccinated first, says Þórólfur, stemming from the fact that there are currently not enough vaccines to inoculate everyone at once. Þórólfur asks the public to consider whether they genuinely want older people to be pushed further down the list for vaccination. That is unavoidable if other groups are prioritised.
Þórólfur is asked about a case of severe allergic reaction to one Moderna vaccine administered yesterday. He states that this is the first one they’ve heard of domestically even though they’ve heard news of such cases in other countries. Health authorities are aware of the possibility of allergic reactions, which is why everyone who receives the injection in Iceland is monitored for 20 minutes afterwards.
Rögnvaldur ends the meeting by reminding the public that even though authorities have relaxed domestic restrictions, they are not encouraging gatherings. This is not an excuse to throw a party. We’re all in this together.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities next briefing on Monday, January 18, at 11.03am.