At an information briefing earlier today, Director of Health Alma Möller, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson discussed the recently tightened restrictions, news that Iceland will resume vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and how hospitals and the healthcare system are preparing for the expected rise in infections and hospitalizations.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review‘s live-tweeting of the briefing.
COVID-19 Numbers: Iceland reported 8 new domestic cases yesterday (all in quarantine) and 8 at the border. Total active cases have risen to 89. 20,325 people (5.5% of the population) have been fully vaccinated and an additional 19,153 (5.2%) have received their first shot.
Rögnvaldur begins the briefing by discussing being in isolation and quarantine with their families. “I know it’s hard.”
Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. Four days ago there was a cluster infection in one family that meant several hundred people are now in quarantine. Its origin isn’t known but it is caused by the British variant of the virus. We can expect to see more cases over the coming days but hopefully, the majority of these cases will be in quarantine. Eight cases were caught yesterday, all in quarantine. Many tests were taken yesterday and Þórólfur encourages everyone to get tested if they’re experiencing any symptoms. The virus has spread in the community, and around 700 people are now in quarantine. This is some cause for concern, as the British variant is more contagious and causes more serious illness, based on data from the countries around us. “To stop the further spread, I believed it was necessary to react quickly and decisively, and regulations based on my suggestions took effect on midnight.”
Þórólfur hopes this reaction will mean that this wave will die down quickly but it will still likely take 2-3 weeks. Þórólfur discusses criticism of his decision to keep kindergartens open, states that there are no epidemiological reasons to close schools for the youngest children and it would be disruptive for the healthcare system. Þórólfur discusses the AstraZeneca vaccine and the decision to resume vaccination and use it for individuals older than 70. “New research proves its efficacy for older people.” The blood clot issues connected with the AstraZeneca vaccine are limited to younger people so Iceland will be vaccinating people over 70 with the vaccine, perhaps even people over 65 or 60 later on.
The current development is a disappointment but not one that is very surprising. Þórólfur is hopeful that we can use our experience from earlier waves of the pandemic to get through this quicker than before. “We need to show solidarity, it’s what’s gotten us this far and what will continue to be the key to our success.” Þórólfur urges people to keep up with personal infection prevention habits.
Alma takes over and discusses hospitalisation rates, something she expects will increase as the British variant takes hold in Iceland. The National Hospital is preparing for this situation, those preparations include being ready to accept children with the illness and completing vaccination of its staff. Testing facilities are busy, expecting to take up to 3000 tests today and the panel encourages everyone to get tested if experiencing any symptoms. Test appointment can be made at www.heilsuvera.is and by calling 1700 or their personal healthcare clinic. The Directorate of health is also bringing back registrations for the healthcare professionals reserve forces, asking all medically trained personnel willing to work to sign up but hopes that the current restrictions will mean that they won’t be needed.
Rögnvaldur discusses Easter and possible travel plans. Christmas bubbles were a success last time and perhaps people should consider an Easter bubble. If travelling, Rögnvaldur encourages people to stay at their accommodation as much as possible to minimise the risk of infection, shop for the trip close to their home and avoid using services and facilities in their destination.
He briefly discusses hikes to the eruption site, asking people to stay in separate groups, not mingle at the eruption site, wear masks and be mindful of winter weather conditions, wear warm clothes and bring plenty of food, adding that masks such as the ones worn to prevent COVID-19 infection offer no protection against toxic gases from the eruption.
The panel is not open to questions. Þórólfur states that the decision to close gyms but keep hair salons open is because there are larger groups in gyms than hair salons. When asked about serious illness by the British variant, Þórólfur replies that currently there are too few people hospitalised with the British variant to estimate the overall illness caused by the variant but they trust data from the countries around us. Alma states “we’re still learning how this new variant behaves.”
Þórólfur: Prioritisation of vaccination remains unchanged despite new strains being more likely to affect younger people and children.
700 people are in quarantine, can we estimate how many of them will test positive? Þórólfur answers that in the past about 5% of people in quarantine test positive but that depends on variants and how extensive quarantines are.
A journalist states that only 5% of passengers arriving at the airport take the Flybus according to RE representatives, Rögnvaldur replies that police monitor the airport and how arriving passengers get home, but that they will look into this information further.
When asked about children playing together during this elongated easter holiday, Þórólfur states that the goal of the restrictions is to minimise mingling and gathering. They haven’t issued guidelines on who can play together, classmates or friends but the general rule is to avoid mingling and limiting contact with unrelated groups and that applies to children as well.
When asked about people’s willingness to be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Þórólfur states that research shows that the vaccine is safe and effective for the older age group. Alma adds that the serious side effects of this vaccine are less common in that group.
“It’s normal to be sad, scared, and angry and we have to give space to those feelings,” states Rögnvaldur. The next step is to realise what needs to be done and how we need to act to get through this.