Battling a global pandemic and preparing for a possible eruption makes for very unusual times, stated Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason at a COVID-19 information briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Þórólfur took a glass-half-full perspective on the matter, however, pointing out that the nation has been successful in contained the virus domestically, allowing authorities to focus their efforts on the ongoing volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula.
In light of infectious variants that are causing continued outbreaks of the pandemic abroad, Iceland must stay vigilant at its borders, Þórólfur stated. A total of 90 tested positive for the British variant of SARS-CoV-2 at Iceland’s borders and 20 domestically. The domestic cases were all closely connected to the border cases. Just one case of the South African variant has been detected n Iceland, and that was at the border just four days ago. Testing and quarantine measures of those arriving from abroad had so far manage to prevent new, infectious variants from gaining a foothold in Iceland. In light of the risk these variants present, Þórólfur stated he did not recommend further loosening domestic restrictions, which are already the most relaxed in Western Europe.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases and 5 at the border. Total active cases: 11. 12,707 have been fully vaccinated, 3.45% of the population.
The briefing has begun. Alma opens the briefing, saying we are in a good place, especially compared to our neighbouring countries, where new variants are likely responsible for ongoing outbreaks. We must continue to keep up individual infection preventions. All of us living in Southwest Iceland must inform ourselves about the proper response to a potential eruption, says Alma, in reference to the volcanic activity occurring on the Reykjanes peninsula.
Þórólfur takes over. He urges the public to get tested if experiencing any symptoms. Þórólfur goes over the numbers. Since February 19 when the new border regulations took effect requiring passengers to present a negative PCR test certificate, two people have tested positive domestically, both in quarantine. 19 have tested positive at the border, of which 11 had an active case of COVID-19. Of about 1,600 negative PCR test certificates shown at the airport, 8 of them were a false negative, or 0.5%. Those individuals either tested positive in the border test or the second test after the 5-day quarantine. This is something to look into and as time passes and we acquire more data.
Twenty cases of the UK variant have been found domestically and one of the South African variant at the border. These variants have not managed to spread into the community. We’ve likely managed to eradicate the virus domestically, even though we can never be quite sure, but we have to take great care at the border. We need to continue testing at the airport and proceed carefully when it comes to relaxing domestic restrictions. We need to keep up our personal infection preventions, especially if an eruption starts in the Southwest region, which might cause a stir in the community. We don’t want to have an outbreak on top of that.
Next week, we will start vaccinating people over the age of 70. We’ve received a shipment schedule from Pfizer for the month of April and will be receiving 34,000 doses. We’ve yet to receive a schedule from AstraZeneca beyond this month and there is no further news about the Janssen vaccine. Þórólfur stresses that those who have been vaccinated need to follow the infection prevention regulations like everyone else until we’re certain vaccinated people can’t transmit the virus.
Battling a global pandemic while staying alert for a possible eruption is a strange situation but we know what we need to do. It’s important that we all do our duty, says Þórólfur.
Since the new border regulations were implemented on February 19, no arriving travellers have tested positive after the triple testing and quarantine. Alma states that authorities considered a longer quarantine for travellers but data showed it was not needed. When asked about where we will reach the goal of vaccinating 190,000 people by the end of June, Þórólfur stated that he doesn’t know: distribution schedules change regularly. He hopes that the goal will be reached but we will simply need to wait and see.
These are unusual times. We’ve had over a year of COVID-19 and now there’s volcanic activity. Icelanders tend to face such events with stoicism and we need to accept that we can’t do anything about it except using the tools we know work. Alma has wondered about how the past year’s events have affected people’s health. She worries about younger people which will hopefully feel better now that schools at all levels have reopened. We’re a well-informed nation and that helps us. Þórólfur adds his “Pollyanna-take:” we can be happy that we’re at such a good place in the pandemic that we can focus our efforts on dealing with earthquakes and a possible eruption.
When asked about vaccination efforts and gathering limits in case of natural disasters, Þórólfur states that vaccination acquisition negotiations are in the hands of the government and Ministry of Health. He maintains that we need to continue on the path we’re on and work towards vaccinating the whole nation. Þórólfur says he believes that authorities are doing all they can to acquire safe and proven vaccines.
Alma mentions the emergency department which is facing a lot of strain currently. Authorities are considering how to lighten their load in collaboration with other healthcare institutions, particularly in light of a potential eruption.
When asked about EU vaccine negotiations, Þórólfur wonders about how long it takes to issue conditional marketing authorisations. He wonders if there’s some way that pharmaceutical companies could work together with vaccine producers to speed up production. He believes that more solutions are being discussed but he is impatient for results. Alma agrees that she would have liked to see things happen faster but mentions that wealthy nations shouldn’t forget that the pandemic isn’t over until it’s over everywhere.
Asked whether he would consider imposing regional restrictions in the country, Þórólfur says it only takes one variant of the virus and only one individual who loses their focus for a new wave of the pandemic to start. Þórólfur does not believe there’s reason to relax restrictions further domestically, especially when we’re seeing highly infectious variants of the virus at the border. He also points out that Iceland has the least restrictive domestic regulations in place in all of western Europe. Alma closes the briefing by reminding the public not to rest on their laurels and also to inform themselves about the possible health risks of toxic gases and ashfall that could come with an eruption. Information will be available later today on the websites of the Directorate of Health, Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, and the Environment Agency.
The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 information briefing on Thursday, March 11 at 11.03am UTC.