While data shows vaccination is reducing the rate of serious illness due to COVID-19 in Iceland, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says it has not led to the herd immunity that experts hoped for. In the past two to three weeks, the Delta variant has outstripped all others in Iceland and it has become clear that vaccinated people can easily contract it as well as spread it to others, Þórólfur stated in a briefing this morning.
The current social restrictions will remain in place until August 13. The Chief Epidemiologist says the government must make the final call on next steps in response to the current wave of infection. Health authorities have sent a formal memorandum to the government expressing concern about the heavy strain on the healthcare system cause by the current record rate of infection.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 108 domestic cases (38 in quarantine) and 1 at the border. Total active cases are at a record 1,304. 16 are in hospital.
The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by saying that the long weekend has passed without any large violations of regulations but it will only come to light in a week or two whether the gatherings last weekend have led to infections.
Þórólfur takes over. He reviews the reason restrictions were lifted last June: at the time infection rates were very low, a majority of the nation was vaccinated and there were regulations at the border ensuring a minimum of infections would cross the border. Vaccination rates are high in most groups, though only 10% of those 12-16 have been vaccinated.
What has happened in the past two to three weeks is that the Delta variant has taken over all other variants in Iceland. And it has come to light that vaccinated individuals can contract it relatively easily and spread infection. Sequencing has shown us that the origin of most domestic infections can be traced to group events such as clubbing in downtown Reykjavík or group trips abroad. We’ll have to wait and see whether the current restrictions will suffice in curbing this current wave.
There are however indications that vaccination is preventing serious illness. Around 24 have had to be hospitalised in this wave, just over 1%. In previous waves, that figure was 4-5%. However, 2.4% of unvaccinated people that contract COVID-19 now are hospitalised.
Authorities have decided to offer those who received the Janssen vaccine a booster shot of Pfizer. There are plans to offer 12- to 15-year-olds vaccination in the near future as well. There are still some 30,000 unvaccinated people among older groups and they are more at risk. That could cause strain on the healthcare system. We must also consider that there is additional strain on other patients when there are lots of COVID cases, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur says we must remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is not close to being over and will not be over until it’s over everywhere. We must be ready to face new challenges that come up in the process. We know what works to curb infection. We can fight COVID-19 if we stand together and reach a consensus on what needs to be done.
The panel opens for questions. “What needs to happen for you to tighten restrictions, Þórólfur? You don’t sound very positive at the moment.” Þórólfur says he has not decided on measures beyond August 13. He is in discussions with the Health Minister, and it is the government that must decide whether it is necessary to impose tighter restrictions. Þórólfur adds that at this time he will likely make recommendations in a different format than the memorandums he has previously sent to the Health Minister.
“Can you give us information about how many people were vaccinated among those who have been hospitalised in this wave?” Þórólfur says around half of those hospitalised have been vaccinated. The two that have been placed in the ICU are unvaccinated. It’s not possible to draw broad conclusions from this data but vaccination appears to reduce serious illness generally.
“What is the reason that you are considering vaccinating children at this time?” Þórólfur says that he has discussed it for some time and children in at-risk groups have already been vaccinated. There is also evidence that the Delta variant causes more serious illness among them.
“Is there a possibility that children that contract the Delta variant will need hospitalisation?” Þórólfur says that children generally have milder symptoms and none in Iceland have been hospitalised in this wave. However, there is data from abroad of children needing to be hospitalised due to COVID-19.
“Do you not want to urge the government to strengthen the healthcare system?” Þórólfur says of course, and the Director of Health has discussed that often at these briefings but it doesn’t happen overnight. What we can do in the short term is to curb infection rates, which will reduce strain on the healthcare system. Þórólfur says: We must keep in mind that people can develop long-term symptoms despite not needing hospitalisation from COVID-19 infection. That’s something that we don’t have long-term data for yet but will come to light.
Þórólfur says health officials have sent a formal memorandum to the government expressing concerns regarding strain on the healthcare system and the National University Hospital. Þórólfur expresses disappointment in the discourse regarding the National University Hospital, he feels the media has been dismissing healthcare workers’ concerns. Healthcare workers are those best positioned to evaluate the hospital’s strain and capacity, he says.
Þórólfur: our main project now is this wave that we have to tackle. Regarding the borders, we must think long-term about how we can minimise infections crossing the border. Then we must consider how we want things to be domestically and what people’s tolerance is for restrictions. But it’s a fact that the more this wave of infection spreads the harder it will be to contain.
Víðir takes over to close the briefing. We know what we have to do: prevent infections, and protect the borders so that we can live as freely as possible within Iceland. We can see that many people are out of patience toward restrictions but unfortunately, this is not over. We don’t have to agree on everything but our message must be clear. It is the virus that is the enemy. We must be good to each other and be patient, try to understand where others are coming from, Víðir says. The briefing has ended.