A rise in COVID-19 infections in Iceland marks a new chapter in the fight again the pandemic, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated in a briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Iceland now reports 60 active infections, up from 34 one week ago. Þórólfur stated there is reason to be concerned about the development but expects the high vaccination rate to protect the nation from serious illness and hospitalisation. Authorities will review border restrictions in light of the development.
Domestic restrictions unchanged, border restrictions reviewed
Health authorities in Iceland have diagnosed 17 individuals with COVID-19 over the past three days, 12 outside of quarantine. Most of the infected people are fully vaccinated, all between 20-50 years of age, and none have severe symptoms. Þórólfur stated that authorities would not impose any domestic restrictions at this time in response to the infections, but encouraged the public to act with caution in the coming days and weeks and continue to practice personal infection prevention.
When asked whether he regrets Iceland’s decision to lift all domestic restrictions last June 26, Þórólfur says he stands with the decision. He expressed more doubt regarding Iceland’s decision to stop testing vaccinated passengers on July 1, however. While authorities will review border measures, Þórólfur stated there is simply not enough manpower to test all arriving travellers since their numbers have increased.
The following is a lightly edited live-tweeting of today’s briefing.
On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
This is Icelandic authorities’ first COVID-19 briefing in 49 days. It’s been called due to a recent uptick in domestic infections diagnosed outside of quarantine.
COVID-19 data has been updated on covid.is. The number of active infections in Iceland has risen to 60, up from 34 when numbers were last updated one week ago. At least two of the domestic infections diagnosed in recent days are of the delta variant, which has so far not spread widely within Iceland.
The briefing has begun. Þórólfur begins by saying this briefing marks the beginning of a new chapter in the fight against COVID-19. We have begun new chapters in this fight before and this is a good time to take stock of where we are, says Þórólfur. On June 26 we lifted all domestic restrictions and on July 1 we lifted some restrictions at the borders, stopping to test vaccinated passengers upon arrival. Lifting of restrictions was decided based on the high rate of vaccination domestically and data showing very low rates of infection among vaccinated individuals. Data on vaccination shows that vaccines are effective in reducing instances of serious illness due to COVID-19 and even better at reducing hospitalisations.
The cases in recent days are traced to the border and to nightlife in the capital area. There were 10 domestic infections diagnosed yesterday, all traced to other recent infections. All 10 individuals were vaccinated. The people diagnosed recently are all relatively young, 20-50 years old. They have classic symptoms but fairly mild, no one has been hospitalised. Most infections at the border recently are of the delta variant which should not come as a surprise as the variant is spreading widely abroad at this time. The alpha and Brazilian variants have also been detected at the border. Most of the domestic infections that have been diagnosed recently are among vaccinated people though a few have been partially vaccinated.
“I believe there is reason to be concerned about this development that we are seeing.” -Þórólfur. Þórólfur says there are no restrictions on the drawing board at this time but they could come into the picture in the future. In that case, authorities would apply restrictions that have proved successful in the past.
Þórólfur reminds the public that we have high vaccination rates but also that it takes 2-3 weeks after administration for vaccines to become effective. Þórólfur encourages the public to practice caution and continue to practice infection prevention measures. He also encourages healthcare institutions to review their rules and do their best to protect vulnerable individuals.
Þórólfur says authorities could potentially begin testing certain travellers again who are currently exempt but they do not have the manpower to test everyone arriving to the country, as the numbers of travellers are too great. Þórólfur encourages travellers arriving from abroad to practice caution upon their return to the country. “The battle with COVID is nowhere near over,” Þórólfur reminds the public.
Víðir takes over to discuss contact tracing. It has been a challenge since restrictions were lifted domestically, which authorities expected. Contact tracing is not as exact now that people can gather in bigger crowds. Nevertheless, contract tracing teams have been working hard and doing a good job.
The panel opens for questions. “Do you discourage locals from travelling abroad at this time?” Þórólfur says that the previous recommendation to avoid travel abroad still stands for unvaccinated people, including children.
“How long will we have restrictions?” We will have to live with some sort of measures until this pandemic is over, Þórólfur says, whether that’s months or a year he cannot say.
“Is anything about this situation unexpected?” Þórólfur says there is no data from anywhere else regarding the risk of vaccinated individuals entering the country. The percentage of infections among them is very low but it doesn’t take more than one or two to spread infection.
“Most Icelanders are vaccinated now. Why can’t we let it be now that the risk of serious illness has been minimised?” We are letting it be, says Þórólfur, we are not imposing restrictions at this time. Þórólfur reminds that this is the same debate we had months ago. It takes 2-3 weeks for measures to show results and if we wait too long to act the situation can get out of hand. Still, we are not imposing measures at this point.
“I know the public is not in the mood for restrictions, but my role is not to think about what the public is in the mood for,” Þórólfur says, though of course it is a factor in his decision making, he adds.
“What about the festivals planned for two weeks from now? Should people stay home?” Þórólfur says that is not what he is suggesting, but each individual should consider their own actions: is it wise to go party downtown or go to big gatherings? People should be able to make decisions without authorities setting rules about what they can and cannot do, that is what I’m underlining, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur says authorities need to reduce the risk at the borders as much as possible, and it is his role to consider how that is best done.
“What kind of restrictions or measures are you considering?” Þórólfur says he is mostly thinking about border regulations at this point, the situation does not yet call for domestic restrictions. Þórólfur says he believes that vaccination should prevent hospitalisations and serious illness. But we need so few infections to create a serious problem at hospitals. So we need to consider that in terms of setting restrictions.
“Now that over 70% of people are vaccinated, should we be looking more at hospitalisation rates rather than infection rates in setting measures?” Þórólfur disagrees. We need to anticipate strain on the healthcare system and prevent it, he says.
“Among those that are infected despite vaccination, are there higher rates of infection among a certain type of vaccine?” Þórólfur says there are infections among people who have received all of the approved vaccines and there is no data showing any of them have higher infection rates.
“Do you think we lifted restrictions too quickly?” Þórólfur stands with the decision to lift restrictions domestically but would have liked to have been able to continue testing all passengers arriving to the country. There is simply not enough manpower to test all arriving passengers considering the numbers that are arriving now, Þórólfur says. But it would have always been necessary to lift restrictions in order to test the herd immunity that we have worked to achieve through vaccination, as this pandemic is not going away in the coming months.
Víðir takes over to close the briefing. He reminds the public of what they can do if they want to protect themselves and others: use hand sanitiser, keep a distance, even use masks if they want to be extra careful. “The pandemic is not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.” -Víðir