By the end of March, Iceland is expected to have received enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate 30,000 people. This is a smaller amount than initially expected, and the slow distribution has led Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist to reorder the vaccination priority groups. While all frontline healthcare workers will have received their first or second dose of the vaccine by the end of January, the next group in line for the shots will be individuals over 70 years of age.
Iceland received 10,000 doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on December 28 and nearly 5,000 healthcare workers and nursing home residents received their first dose before the new year began. No more than 50,000 additional doses are expected from Pfizer and Moderna in the first three months of the year. They will be used to complete vaccination among frontline healthcare workers and to begin vaccinating those over 70 and individuals with certain underlying diseases. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated it is unlikely other groups will be vaccinated before the end of March.
Moving seniors up on the list means those in other priority groups, such as police officers and firefighters, may wait longer to be vaccinated.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live tweets of today’s COVID-19 briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Icelandic Medicines Agency Director Rúna Hauksdóttir Hvannberg.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 11 new domestic cases (7 in quarantine at the time), 10 from border testing. Total active cases: 126. 20 in hospital, none in ICU.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts by complimenting the staff of the country’s quarantine hotels. He also gives praise to the border patrol at Keflavík Airport, calling them an important link in securing the country’s infection prevention.
Þórólfur takes over to discuss the numbers. He says there were 6 in quarantine among yesterday’s 11 new cases, not 7 as reported on covid.is. This is a little higher than in the past few days but not by much, says Þórólfur. Until now 22 individuals have been diagnosed with the British strain of the virus, three of these were domestic infections but all were closely related to an infection diagnosed at the border. If we look at the new domestic cases we’ve seen in the past few days, they’ve been relatively few although they increased a little yesterday. There are more infections now at the border than domestically, which reflects the growth of the pandemic abroad.
Three individuals have contracted the British strain of the virus domestically and there are signs indicating now that this strain is more infectious but there are no indications it causes more serious illness. We don’t know if the strain reacts to medication and vaccines in the same way. Hopefully that information will be available soon.
Before the end of March, we stand to receive vaccines for 30,000 people. We have already distributed 10,000 doses. Since we’re receiving less of the vaccine than hoped in the first three months of the year, Þórólfur says he has been forced to reconsider the priority groups for vaccinations. When the next shipment of vaccine arrives, we’ll complete vaccinations of frontline healthcare workers and continue vaccinating individuals over 70. According to the information we have now, we do not anticipate that we will start vaccinating people under the age of 70 until after March.
Þórólfur is preparing his recommendations for updated restrictions from January 12, but is not yet ready to release the details. He reminds people that restrictions have been eased considerably for schools, which are now open for in-person teaching, and asks students and teachers to be careful and continue to practice infection prevention. It’s important for us to do everything we can to prevent another spike in infections, says Þórólfur. We’re seeing the British strain wreak havoc in the countries around us and I trust we’ll do our very best to keep up our success.
Rúna takes over to discuss vaccinations. She says COVID-19 vaccines are the way out of this pandemic. Two vaccines have received a conditional market authorisation in Iceland, the BioNTech Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The AstraZeneca vaccine is currently under review. Rúna discusses the reports of side effects the Iceland Medicines Agency has received following the first wave of vaccinations.
Four deaths were reported among elderly individuals with underlying illnesses who had received vaccines. No link has been found between the vaccinations and the deaths, but they will be investigated nonetheless. It should be noted that in the first wave of vaccinations, the oldest and most frail members of society were first in line. On average, 18-20 people die in nursing homes in Iceland per week, says Rúna. She uses the opportunity to send her condolences to the people’s families. There are no indications that the vaccines are unsafe, says Rúna. Mild side effects are to be expected and subside in a few days. Serious side effects from vaccines are rare but the Icelandic Medicines Agency received five notices of possible serious side effects – the 4 deaths mentioned and one hospitalisation – but there is no evidence they are linked to the vaccines. The Iceland Medicines Agency has received 41 reports of vaccine side effects in total, of which 36 were considered mild.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur hopes the first shipment of the Moderna vaccine will arrive next week but the exact date is yet to be set. When asked if border restrictions will be tightened in light of the new British strain, Þórólfur mentions that he has suggested before that testing at the border be mandatory and he has now recommended that once more. (Currently, arriving travellers can opt between double testing with 5-day quarantine and 14-day quarantine without testing.) Þórólfur says, however, there are very few who choose not to be tested at the airport. Authorities are monitoring people in quarantine. They’re doing everything they can to stop the British strain from entering the country and spreading domestically.
When asked if the previously-stated goal of vaccinating most of the nation in the first half of the year is now unrealistic, Þórólfur declines to comment in detail. Vaccine manufacturers are working to increase production and speed up distribution but nothing has been confirmed. On the other hand, says Þórólfur, I have previously stated that we will need to maintain some form of restrictions until we achieve herd immunity. We can be happy about the fact that the pandemic is at a low here, unlike in other countries. The healthcare system is not struggling. We have to hold out until we receive the vaccine doses we require.
The panel is asked about surveillance of arriving travellers. Rögnvaldur goes over quarantine surveillance. Authorities trust that people are following the rules but verify that by monitoring.
When asked about when gyms will reopen, Þórólfur states that he will give the same answer he has given so many times before: it depends on the state of the pandemic. Pressed to discuss what his recommendations for updated restrictions will be, Þórólfur declines to discuss them in more detail. He adds that we should remember that current restrictions in Iceland are much more relaxed than in most of the countries around us.
When asked about the informal negotiations with Pfizer about a potential vaccination research project in Iceland, Þóróflur states that the ball is still in their court and he doesn’t really have more to say on that until they give their answer. Þórólfur agrees that deCODE genetics has been very helpful in COVID-19 testing in Iceland and their help has been instrumental, especially in the first wave of the pandemic.
Þórólfur is asked about sports activities. He states the conversation between authorities and sports organisations is ongoing and they’re doing their best to keep the pandemic down and not impose tighter restrictions than necessary. He says the situation is difficult and won’t get easier.
Þórólfur is asked about conspiracy theories surrounding vaccines and whether authorities will aim to reach those in society who are opposed to vaccination. Þórólfur says that these conspiracy theories aren’t new but the group in Iceland that believes them is small, which is good because they are completely unfounded in reality. There has been no increase in overall deaths in nursing homes following the first round of vaccinations and Þórólfur denounces all such conspiracy theories.
Asked about attempts to increase production, Rúna says Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca are working to ramp up manufacturing, they are just as invested in that as we are. Þórólfur is asked about the number of people in quarantine rising. He states that the number fluctuates and is not necessarily indicative of an increase in domestic transmission or growth of the pandemic. When asked again about reopening gyms, Þórólfur states that a recent article about infection prevention at the gym is in line with what authorities have been saying: if people are careful, there’s not a high risk of infection. If they aren’t, there’s danger. Authorities go over all suggestions and comments they receive and welcome constructive criticism, says Þórólfur. Let’s follow the rules that are in place, we’re all in this together.
Rögnvaldur closes the meeting by stating we are each responsible for our individual infection prevention. There is often an unfair burden placed on staff at shops and in public places to remind us to follow the rules. Rögnvaldur encouraged staff to not give up, even when customers are being difficult and encouraged the public to be responsible. “Let’s do this together.”
Iceland Review will live-tweet the next briefing on Monday, January 11.