At a Reykjavík briefing today, Iceland’s health authorities underlined the importance of treading carefully despite the local success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Iceland has not diagnosed a single domestic case outside of quarantine since January 20, except one case on February 1 that turned out to be an old (inactive) infection. Nevertheless, the country’s Director of Health Alma Möller reminded the public that it only takes one case to start a new wave.
Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has submitted recommendations for further tightening border regulations to prevent infections from entering the country. Currently, all travellers arriving to Iceland from abroad are required to undergo testing upon arrival, five to six days of quarantine, and a follow-up test. Þórólfur has discussed the possibility of also requiring travellers to provide a negative PCR test certificate administered in their country of origin and requiring travellers to quarantine in government facilities for the five-day period.
Vaccination efforts are going well, according to authorities, who expressed their hope that vaccination could speed up in the second quarter as manufacturers ramp up production.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson.
Yesterday’s numbers are in on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases. Total active cases number 26. 8 are in hospital and 5,757 have been fully vaccinated. The briefing has begun. Þórólfur starts the meeting by mentioning that no one tested positive within the country over the weekend. Fewer tests have been administered in recent days and Þórólfur encourages the public to get tested if they’re experiencing any symptoms.
About 1 percent of passengers arriving in Iceland from abroad are testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. No one is in hospital with an active case of COVID-19 and only eight that are recovering from infection. Þórólfur: We’ve had success with the actions we’ve taken but we have to remember that it’s only a week since we last relaxed restrictions. It takes a week or two for the effects of restriction changes to become apparent. Before we start thinking about further relaxing domestic restrictions, we need to think about the border restrictions. I’ve sent recommendations for new border regulations to the Minister of Health.
Good news on the vaccine front: increased vaccine production capacity will likely lead to larger & more frequent vaccine shipments to Iceland and we’re hopeful that we’ll be getting more vaccine in the near future than currently expected. According to the distribution schedules currently in place, we’ll receive 70,000 doses before the end of March and that number does not include the AstraZeneca vaccine doses we are expected to receive in March. Danish authorities believe they’ll be able to vaccinate a large part of the nation this summer and hopefully that will also apply to Iceland.
Director of Health Alma takes over and preaches caution: it only takes one infection to start a new wave of the virus and early detection is key. She goes over the common symptoms and encourages the public to be on alert and get tested if experiencing any symptoms. We have to keep our guard up. Personal preventative methods have not only helped us contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have also led to fewer viral infections across the board. Antibiotics prescriptions dropped significantly last year, says Alma. Alma hopes that individual infection prevention behaviour is here to stay as antibiotic-resistant viruses are a real problem the healthcare system will face in coming years.
The panel opens for questions. “What happens if an individual refuses a particular type of vaccine, are they put at the end of the line or do they even get a second offer?” Þórólfur doesn’t know, it hasn’t come up so far. Víðir is asked about Ash Wednesday and how people can celebrate the holiday this year (which traditionally involves costumes for children and gatherings). He mentions guidelines for a “different Ash Wednesday” that have been published on covid.is
Þórólfur will wait and see for this week before submitting his next memorandum for relaxed restrictions. Þórólfur is asked about predictability in vaccination efforts. He states that vaccine distribution schedules keep changing frequently and he won’t speculate, only calculate based on the shipments they expect to receive. Asked if twice-weekly information briefings are necessary when there are so few infections, Þórólfur jokingly replies that the last time they decided to drop the information briefings, infections went up so they’re not taking any chances.
Last weekend was the first one since bars were allowed to reopen and things went well. Police kept up strong surveillance but overall it was a success. Víðir mentions that it’s been almost a year: everyone should know how the rules work by now and everyone knows how to count.
Þórólfur’s suggestions for updated border restrictions mostly pertain to making some procedures already in place clearer and the possibility of requiring people to stay in quarantine hotels for the five-day period between border tests. The suggestions also pertain requiring a negative PCR test administered before departure to Iceland.
Þórólfur is asked if Iceland made a mistake by negotiating vaccine contracts through the EU. Þórólfur says that this is a question with no clear answer, he thinks Iceland is not in a bad position and will be vaccinated at the same time as the rest of Europe.
“What’s the state of nursing home restrictions now that most residents have received one or both doses of vaccine?” The Chief Epidemiologist says nursing homes make their own regulations based on authorities’ guidelines. They are still treading carefully.
Þórólfur will not speculate how much more vaccine we’ll receive in coming weeks, it’s up to the vaccine producers’ capacity. Although it’s good news that they claim they’re increasing their capacity, Þórólfur will only base his plans on distribution schedules in hand. We currently don’t know how many vaccine doses Iceland will receive after March.
Will children under 7 be vaccinated? We don’t know, we’ll wait for the results of scientific research. Alma states there’s nothing new to report on the autumn Landakot group infection. Any news of research on long-term effects of COVID-19? Research is ongoing, says Alma.
Víðir ends the briefing by reminding people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms to get tested. We have a precious situation that is nonetheless precarious and we have to protect it.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing, scheduled for Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 11.03am.