COVID-19 in Iceland: Icelandic Authorities Take New Approach to Pandemic

Þórólfur Guðnason Chief Epidemiologist

Quarantine and testing regulation changes that took effect at midnight and upcoming steps to relax restrictions despite record numbers of infections mark a change in direction in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated during a COVID-19 information briefing this morning. The panel also included Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson and Director of Health Alma Möller.

According to the panel, the reason for the change in tactics is the change in the pandemic’s behaviour. With the introduction of the omicron variant, as well as 78% of the nation being fully vaccinated and over 50% having had their booster shot, the National Hospital’s data indicates that the risk of serious illness is much less than it was.

Iceland’s COVID-19 numbers Jan. 25:
Domestic cases: 1,539 (52% in quarantine)
Border cases: 58
Total active cases: 11,744 ⬆️
Hospitalised: 38 (3 in ICU)
14-day incidence rate per 100,000: 4,883 ⬆️
Fully vaccinated: 78%
Boosted: 50.7%

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.

Stay tuned for a live-tweeting of Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 information briefing, beginning shortly at 11:03 AM UTC. On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Director of Health Alma Möller.

New regulations on COVID-19 quarantine took effect in Iceland today, aiming to reduce strain on testing centres, schools, and workplaces.

Iceland reported 1,539 new domestic cases yesterday, a slight drop from the previous day, which was 1,558 and a national record.

The briefing has begun. Víðir starts by noting that tomorrow marks the two year anniversary of the first phase of uncertainty declared in response to COVID in Iceland. He discusses the changes to quarantine regulations that took effect at midnight, stating that it’s normal that it takes a few days to get used to what those rules entail. He sends his regards to schools and teachers, stating they are sure to face challenges ahead.

Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. Infection numbers have been rising, especially over the past few days. The National Hospital’s review of COVID hospitalisations has shown that Omicron leads to fewer cases of serious illness and booster shots also provide significant protection against contracting the variant. There are still several COVID-19 hospitalisations per day, but few admissions to ICU. Most of those infected have the Omicron variant. Serious illness caused by COVID is rarer than before, but still, 0.2% of infected people end up in hospital. Increased rates of infection still pose challenges for the healthcare system.

As the risk of serious illness has decreased, the government intends to relax restrictions. The first step is the changes to testing and quarantine that took effect at midnight. The changes mean that fewer people need to get PCR tests, which is helpful as our testing capacity is limited. People can still get tested if they have symptoms. Special infection prevention precautions will replace quarantine for many people, which is much less restrictive.

Þórólfur still wants to lift restrictions slowly, so as not to experience a backlash. Lifting restrictions can lead to a spike in infections, resulting in increased strain on the hospital, Þórólfur says. Þórólfur: When can we expect the pandemic to end or lessen significantly? With an increased number of infections in society, the end is nigh. Preliminary results of a deCODE genetics and healthcare authorities study indicate that up to 20% of people under 40 have already contracted the virus in Iceland. Þórólfur: About 80% of the nation might need to be infected to reach herd immunity, that might take up to two more months. But brighter times are ahead. Þórólfur: Let’s lift restrictions slowly but surely and not let our excitement ruin the success we’ve had so far.

Director of Health Alma Möller takes over to discuss the situation in the healthcare system. The situation at the National Hospital is getting better, thanks to fewer cases of serious illness and the diligent work of the COVID-19 outpatient ward. Surgeries are still on hold and operating theatres are working at 80% capacity. There is much less strain on healthcare clinics now thanks to the new quarantine and testing regulations. The number of hospital staff members in isolation has risen recently, which is one of the biggest challenges faced by the healthcare system. Staffing is a challenge for nursing homes and welfare services due to infections and quarantining among staff. Administrative staff are however ready to take over in necessary positions, and have done so as has been reported in the news. Alma thanks healthcare and welfare services staff for their good work. Alma emphasises the importance of being careful despite the fact that Omicron is milder. People can still get very sick.

The panel opens for questions. “Is this decision to relax quarantine regulations a change of direction? You’ve previously emphasised the importance of testing and tracing.”

Þórólfur says yes, this constitutes a change of direction, as the nature of the pandemic has changed. Quarantine and testing has placed strain on schools and workplaces and we are now taking a new approach. “Þórólfur, are you giving authorities different options as to how to proceed with regulations, as you have in the past? How do you foresee the lifting of restrictions to proceed?”

Þórólfur says the workflow has been the same as before. He gives suggestions and the government makes the final decision. Þórólfur is asked about PCR tests versus other types of tests that are used more commonly abroad. Þórólfur says he is not familiar enough with methods abroad to comment.

“What happens if we get another dangerous variant? Will we place more emphasis on border control?” Þórólfur says we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it, but there will be many factors to take into account, as always. We have experience of both domestic and border restrictions and we know what works and how.

“Will these new quarantine regulations lead to a drastic spike in cases and how will you respond to that?” Þórólfur says case numbers will likely rise but it is hard to say how much. Authorities will have to continue to monitor the situation and will have to be ready to respond if hospitalisations rise.

“Why do we still have to wear masks even when we’re triple vaccinated? Is that not proof that COVID vaccination is not effective?” While most vaccines stop the transmission of illness as well as serious illness, the COVID-19 vaccine protects against serious illness but doesn’t prevent the spread of the disease as much as we would have liked, Þórólfur answers.

Asked about the side effects of vaccination, Alma says all vaccinations have some side effects, but the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines are much rarer than side effects due to COVID-19 infection. Asked whether Icelandic authorities are vaccinating children to fulfil contract requirements with pharmaceutical companies, Alma says the answer is of course that no: we’re vaccinating them to protect children against serious illness and the risk of long-term effects of COVID.

Víðir takes over to address criticism that journalists can only ask one question at the briefings. He says briefings are scheduled for half an hour but all members of the COVID response team are available for interviews and questions at all times.

Víðir mentions that changes to quarantine regulations will take a few days to settle in but encourages everyone to go over the new regulations, particularly what “special infection precaution” entails.  Víðir closes the meeting by reminding the public that Icelandic winters are long and we will likely experience a few bouts of stormy weather before spring, preaching patience and tolerance as we weather the storm that is the pandemic. The briefing has ended.

COVID-19 Information Briefing: Vaccinations And Natural Infections Might Allow For Relaxing Restrictions

Icelandic authorities’ gave a COVID-19 information briefing at 11 AM on the COVID-19 situation in Iceland following the recent surge in infections. On the panel were familiar faces: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson. During the briefing, the team revealed that despite the rise in infections, there hadn’t been a corresponding rise in hospitalisations, inspiring hope that widespread vaccinations paired with a wave of natural infections might boost immunity enough to relax restrictions soon.

Iceland’s COVID-19 numbers Dec. 28:
New cases: 825 (298 in quarantine)
Total active cases: 5,534 ⬆️
Hospitalised: 21 (6 in ICU)
14-day incidence rate per 100,000: 1,526.6 ⬆️
Fully vaccinated: 77% of population
Booster shots administered: 157,925 (42.7%)

The information briefing went as follows:

Víðir starts the briefing by sending his regards to the 13,000 people in isolation and quarantine. There’s a strain on testing and contact tracing teams, but they’re still holding on, breaking records every day over how many they can get to in a day. Digital solutions are proving successful and helping the team in their efforts. Víðir asks people to keep up their personal infection prevention, work from home, and avoid large gatherings, noting that the national church is setting a good example by cancelling their New Year’s ceremonies.

Testing capacity tested

Þórólfur takes over. He goes over the exponential increase in omicron infections. The growth results from increased omicron cases, but the delta cases tested every day remain steady at around 100 per day. Even though there were slightly fewer cases today than yesterday, it remains to be seen if we’ve reached a peak. The next few days’ numbers will tell. Very many tests were performed yesterday, more than 8000. Just under 7000 tests were processed yesterday, as the number of tests was well over the processing capacity. Some more positive cases might remain from yesterday. Þórólfur asks people for patience in waiting for their test results.

Vaccinations plus natural infections might allow for eased restrictions

Þórólfur states that most hospitalised people have the delta variant, but two have the omicron variant. Despite the surge in cases, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in hospitalisations, so hopefully, that means that omicron causes a milder illness. Þórólfur warns that it’s still too early to tell. The reason that serious illness is rarer than in other variants might be something to do with the nature of the virus or that widespread vaccinations are preventing more serious illness. Whatever the reason, widespread vaccinations paired with natural infections might boost the nation’s immunity enough for us to relax restrictions and slowly return to a more normal way of life. This should serve as an encouragement for everyone to get their booster shot as soon as they’re eligible.

Quarantine and isolation periods not excessive

Þórólfur mentions the new regulations in America regarding asymptomatic people, stating that their main objective seems to be to get people back to work as quickly as possible, raising questions about their infection prevention value. Þórólfur believes it prudent to wait and see but mentions that Iceland doesn’t have as strict rules as some other Nordic countries and has a shorter quarantine and isolation period than recommended by the ECDC. He believes it is not a good idea to cease contact tracing and quarantining, despite the strain on resources caused by the rise in infections.

He wishes everyone a happy new year.

Healthcare staff also experiencing quarantines and isolation

Director of Health Alma Möller takes over. In the weekly surveillance by the Directorate of Health, the situation at the National Hospital is becoming tougher. Healthcare staff catch the virus, get quarantined or isolated just like everyone else and it becomes harder to keep all departments staffed. While hospitalisations due to the virus haven’t increased in line with the number of infections, a group infection at the cardiac ward has led to an increase in hospitalised people with the virus. Even though people were originally hospitalised for other things, taking care of covid infected people requires protective gear and other safety precautions and increases workload for staff. Yesterday, four people were hospitalised and another four were discharged.

Hospital in a state of emergency

The hospital is now at its emergency phase, and management is working closely with the ministry of health and other institutions in the healthcare system. 21 people are hospitalised with covid-19, 18, with an active infection and three battling covid aftereffects. Alma states that the wave of infections might still result in increased hospitalisation, but they don’t know at the moment if those forecasts will materialise. Just under 6000 people are in the care of the hospital’s remote covid department, but increased automation and digital solution has helped to relieve stress. Most have little or no symptoms, 231 patients are colour coded as yellow, indicating an increased likelihood of hospitalisation and two are coded as red.

The National Hospital’s Immunology department which handles COVID test processing is under a great deal of strain and healthcare institutions in other pars of the country are also facing increased strain. Healthcare clinics and the after-hours clinic ask people with symptoms to get PCR tested before arriving, if their illness can handle the wait. All sick people will still be seen and treated and everyone requiring medical attention is urged to get the help they need. The After-Hours Clinic asks people to see if they can get their needs met at their local healthcare clinic during office hours, as their after-hours services are intended for cases that can’t wait. The government’s tracing app was updated recently but Alma reminds app needs to be opened and activated for it to work.

Alma wishes everyone a happy new year and reminds the to mind their personal infection prevention, and to get vaccinated and boosted.

Questions from the press

The panel is now open for questions from the press. Þórólfur is asked about what properties of the pandemic they’re looking for when assessing the state of the pandemic. The severity of illness and the strain on the healthcare system.

Mental health

Alma is asked about the mental health effects of the pandemic. According to the Directorate of Health’s data, it affects younger people more, with many experiencing anxiety. They don’t know how much of it is caused by the government’s restrictions or the pandemic, although research shows that people directly affected by the pandemic were hit harder.

Can viral sequencing shorten quarantine periods?

Þórólfur is asked if isolation or quarantine periods can be affected by which variant causes the illness. Þórólfur states that it’s a possibility but not very practical since viral sequencing results aren’t available immediately. He also states that it likely won’t be necessary if the omicron variant completely takes over. There’s always a possibility that a new variant will appear.

Alma adds that people are asking which variant they have, but they’re working on making that information available to patients.

Hospital capacity based on staff

Alma is asked about the capacity of the healthcare system, replying that the most worrisome threat is healthcare staff being affected. There are plenty of ventilators, 56 but they wouldn’t have the staff necessary to take care of 56 patients on ventilators. The hospital should be able to accept at least 30 COVID patients.

Hotel guests moved to make way for quarantines

With the surge in infections, quarantine hotels are filling up, and healthcare authorities are prioritising people for a spot based on need. If there’s no possibility of isolating in the home or there’s a person in the household with underlying conditions, people have a right to a quarantine hotel. But there’s a waiting list of 100 people. A hotelier moved guests from their hotel to accommodate the quarantine hotels, and the situation is improving, with more rooms in hotels becoming available after the new year when the tourists leave.

Early boosters don’t make sense

Þórólfur states that the current recommendation is that boosters are administered 5 months after the second dose. The best coverage happens when booster shots are administered 5-6 months after their second injection and giving it earlier might have slightly worse results. Statistically, fewer people with booster shots become seriously ill.

Asymptomatic people still infect others

Asymptomatic people might still have a great amount of the virus in them. Even if asymptomatic people might have a slightly less ability to infect others, they still pose a greater danger since they move more freely than people experiencing flulike symptoms.

Suicide rates high but not significantly so

Alma is asked about suicide rates. While suicide numbers for 2021 were high, they weren’t historically high. The small size of the population means that numbers fluctuate greatly between years. The numbers for 2021 won’t be final for a few months. There is an action plan in place regarding mental health efforts and funding was increased.

Children’s boosters not scheduled yet

Þórólfur states that booster shots for children are not yet on the horizon but that at least for the delta variant, children’s vaccionations prove much more effective than in adults. Hopefully, it will be the same for omicron. Þórólfur is asked about booster shots for teachers and if schools reopening after Christmas vacations should be postponed. No such decision has been made.

Publishing data on symptoms of people in isolation is not viable as the situation is liable to change over the course of a day.

Herd immunity on the horizon?

Þórólfur is asked about the possibility to let the pandemic rip and achieve herd immunity that way. He replies that widespread vaccinations paired with natural infections might lead to herd immunity. The problem is that there are people more sensitive to the illness and some unvaccinated people. He urges caution for the time being rather than having to regret something later.

Víðir closes the briefing by reminding people of what we’re trying to achieve. The goals are the same as they have always been, tempering the pandemic, gathering more information, protecting the healthcare system and sensitive groups with the hope to get back to normal soon.

Víðir thanks people for the unity and solidarity and wishes everyone a happy new year

COVID-19 in Iceland: Case Numbers Drop as Authorities Urge Continued Caution

COVID-19 Iceland

At a briefing in Reykjavík today, Icelandic authorities reminded the public to stay on their guard despite the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Iceland currently has 64 active cases of the disease, a number that has been regularly dropping and has not been as low since September of last year. Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection, expressed his concern that the public was relaxing more than warranted, reminding that a fresh local outbreak could still occur.

Vaccination against COVID-19 began on December 29 in Iceland, and over 4,500 have received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines since that date: mostly front-line workers and nursing home residents. Per the current distribution schedule, Icelandic health authorities hope to vaccinate most individuals belonging to priority groups by the end of March.

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.

 

On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller, Assistant to Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.

Yesterday’s numbers are in on covid.is. Iceland reported 1 new domestic case (in quarantine at the time) and 4 at the border. Total active cases: 64. 17 are in hospital. 4,546 have completed vaccination for COVID-19.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur says numbers have been good over the weekend but encourages the public to continue to get tested if they have any symptoms. We’re seeing indications that people are relaxing more than is warranted, says Rögnvaldur. More people are gathering and in larger groups, and we urge people not to gather unless necessary.

Þórólfur takes over. He states that the weekend had good numbers: few cases and most in quarantine, although fewer tests were administered. We don’t have recent information on the viral strains being diagnosed but deCODE has told us that 43 people have caught the British strain, 7 domestically. The domestic cases had all been in close contact with people arriving from abroad and this strain hasn’t spread locally. “I think it’s important to keep asking people experiencing symptoms to get tested and stay at home until they’ve received a negative result, it’s the key to our work in stopping the spread of the virus.” -Þórólfur

Þórólfur: A considerable number of people are testing positive at the border. This reflects the increased spread of the virus abroad, so I repeat my recommendation to the public to not travel abroad unless absolutely necessary. Þórólfur does not believe there’s reason to relax restrictions further at this moment.

We’re sitll waiting for news of Pfizer and Moderna’s distribution schedule after February and news of AstraZeneca’s pending market authorisation in Europe. This week we will receive 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 2,000 from Pfizer, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur and [deCODE CEO] Kári Stefánsson’s negotiations with Pfizer on vaccine research that would provide vaccines for the whole nation are still ongoing and there’s nothing new to report.

Alma takes over. Our current status in fighting the virus is good, especially compared to our neighbouring countries, she says. A new report from the ECDC last week covers the new strains wreaking havoc on the countries around us, such as the British strain. It managed to spread despite harsh social restrictions. The British restrain is more infectious, but it has not yet been proved conclusively that it’s more deadly, though mortality rates in the UK are higher than ever. Authorities believe the vaccines currently available are effective against the strain, but the situation will continue to be monitored closely.

The South African strain is another one authorities are watching closely: it has been detected in the Nordic countries and it might be resistant to vaccines. The Brazilian strain has caused increased workload on local healthcare systems but local authorities don’t have much information on the development of that strain. The World Health Organisation is asking nations to increase their efforts in sequencing COVID-19 viral strains. deCODE sequences 100% of infections in Iceland and has done so since the pandemic began, and we’re very grateful for their efforts, says Alma.

Early detection is still the cornerstone of our fight against the virus, says Alma. Alma goes over the symptoms of the virus, and reminds everyone to get tested if they experience any of these symptoms and stay at home until they receive their result. “We must stick this out and not rest on our laurels.”

The panel opens for questions. Reporter: Why aren’t we satisfied with our success? Answer: In our experience, when we are diagnosing fewer infections, we’re likely to get another spike. If people relax too much, it takes a lot less for a new wave of infections to spread and can be much harder to contain it. When asked about relaxing restrictions, Þórólfur reminds the public that it’s less than two weeks since authorities last relaxed restrictions and says there’s no reason to hurry. Þórólfur: We can wait and see what happens in the coming days and weeks – authorities are constantly re-evaluating restrictions.

Þórólfur is asked about delays in vaccine distribution which will have the effect that vaccination of all priority groups will not be completed before the end of March. Þórólfur stated that this isn’t news: individuals in priority groups number around 40,000 and according to current plans we’ll have received enough doses for 30,000 people by the end of March. Þórólfur still hopes that AstraZeneca will receive their market authorisation in Europe soon and that they’ll receive additional doses of that vaccine before the end of March.

A reporter asks about vaccination efforts in other European nations, claiming Denmark has gotten further in its efforts despite receiving vaccines through the same European contracts as Iceland. Þórólfur states that he can’t speak for Danish authorities.

Þórólfur is not ready to give projections for when each individual will be vaccinated as he doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep. There’s still much uncertainty about vaccine distribution but if we receive more vaccines, we might be able to make more detailed plans, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur is not ready to make any predictions for next summer regarding large gatherings: there are still too many variables such as vaccine distribution and the looming possibility of vaccine-resistant viral strains. Asked about how many have ordered certificates to confirm their vaccination, Þórólfur says he does not have information on the certificates.

When asked about reported parties in the capital area over the weekend, Rögnvaldur replies that authorities are concerned that the public might be relaxing too much. Asked about anti-restriction protests, Þórólfur states there have been some but fortunately groups haven’t been large. Restrictions here are relatively mild. There is a chance protests will increase if they need to tighten restrictions again but he hopes that won’t be the case.

Where can people in priority groups receive information on when they will have access to vaccines? Þórólfur: That differs depending on their municipality. If people believe they are being forgotten, the simplest thing to do is to contact their healthcare centre. While not everyone will receive the vaccine at the same time, I can confirm that no one will be left behind, says Þórólfur. In the end, everyone will be able to get the vaccine.

When asked if they’re relaxing restrictions too quickly, Þórólfur states that he has repeatedly stated that he thinks it’s important not to relax restrictions too quickly and that the current regulations are in place until February 17. Rögnvaldur closes the briefing with his usual reminders to the public: “This is not over, we must keep our guard up.”

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, January 28 at 11.03am.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Clear Regulations Combat Pandemic Fatigue

COVID-19 Iceland

Clear and open communications between authorities and the public, but also between individuals, were the main topics of today’s information briefing on COVID-19 in Iceland. The panel today included Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Director of Health Alma Möller. It also included a special guest: Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir, an expert from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Positive numbers but still to early to declare victory

Yesterday, 33 people tested positive for the coronavirus domestically, 61% of which were already in quarantine. In total there are 1,159 active cases of the virus, 21 people are in hospital and three in the ICU. The total number and number of hospitalised continues to fall, as does the daily number of new cases. “The curve continues downwards. All figures suggest we are seeing a decrease in infections,” Þórólfur stated. “Iceland is one of just 4 countries in Europe where the incidence rate has been dropping in recent days, it is rising in the remaining countries. It is, however, still too early to declare victory,” the Chief Epidemiologist adds.

Increased cases at the border indicate rise of pandemic across Europe

While domestic numbers are going down, an unusually high number of people have tested positive at the border, most of them arriving from Poland. Þórólfur stated that this likely was a representation of infection numbers going up in Poland but in his mind, this also underlined the importance of border testing. Authorities are looking into if changes should be made to the border testing, perhaps making it a requirement from people coming from certain countries. Currently, people arriving in Iceland have a choice between double testing and 5-day quarantine or 14-day quarantine.

Clear guidelines necessary, vow to do better

Þórólfur also addressed the confusion arising last week over gyms being allowed to reopen last week, albeit with heavy restrictions. He lamented the confusion and unrest the matter caused but explained that after he had suggested the gyms remain closed but allowing non-contact sports with restrictions, the Ministry of Health found a legal flaw that didn’t allow them to issue such regulations. Ultimately, he agreed with their reasoning. He reiterated that issuing regulations that fit everyone perfectly was a task doomed to failure but stressed that the main thing people should keep in mind are personal preventative measures such as handwashing, social distance and disinfecting common surfaces. “Both I and the Ministry of Health will learn from this and aim to ensure regulations are clear in the future,” the Chief Epidemiologist added.

Icelandic public more satisfied with government response

Some of the key factors to prevent pandemic fatigue are clear regulations and easy access to information on how and why decisions are made, Director of Health Alma Möller stated. Statistics from the University of Iceland show that the public in Iceland is more satisfied with government response than the public in many other countries. “Still, recent events show that we can and must do better,” she added.

Take care of yourself, then support others

Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir from the Department of Civil Protection discussed perseverance in the face of the pandemic, the importance of support from a social network, and how people need to take care of themselves in order to be able to support the people around them. “Living on a volcanic island regularly tests our perseverance, but now we’re dealing with heavy restrictions on our daily lives,” says Ingibjörg. “It’s normal to not always like the rules and restrictions placed on us.” She suggested people pay greater attention to their mental wellbeing by taking care of themselves and their bodies by sleeping well, eating nutritious food, and exercising regularly, but also suggested paying attention to other people. “If we notice others are behaving out of character, let’s ask how they’re feeling and provide emotional support. Stopping for a chat in your building’s stairwell (from a two-metre distance) might make a difference to someone lacking social support.” She also addressed children who might be experiencing anxiety, suggesting that an open conversation, depending on the child’s maturity is the best way to alleviate their worries.

Víðir ended the briefing with his usual mantra on the importance of personal preventative measures: hand washing and disinfecting shared surfaces is key to preventing infection. He added: “We’re all tired and that’s normal. It’s also normal to be annoyed and angry when rules are unclear. Authorities are listening and aim to do better.”

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ COVID-19 briefings in English on Mondays and Thursdays at 11.00 am UTC.

 

Without Strict Measures, Up to 88,000 New Infections by Year End

COVID-19 Iceland

As many as 88,000 new COVID-19 infections could be expected in Iceland before the end of the year if, instead of gathering restrictions and stricter lockdown measures, the country opted to strive for so-called ‘herd immunity.’ This projection was among those taken from a Finnish forecast model and laid out in an article co-authored by Director of Health Alma Möller, Civil Protection and Emergency Management Division manage Víðir Reynisson, and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and published in Fréttablaðið this morning.

Per the forecast model that Alma, Víðir, and Þórólfur cite, strict gathering bans and disease prevention measures are absolutely integral to preventing a significant spike in infections in the country. Without them, the model projects that by the second half of November, as many as 3,000 people in Iceland would be diagnosed with COVID-19 every day.

Great Barrington approach ‘not viable’

This morning’s article responds to the Great Barrington Declaration, a much-debated approach to COVID-19 defence authored by three professor-epidemiologists at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Universities respectively. This approach is now under consideration in the US, among other places. It advocates for what it calls “focused protection,” or essentially, getting rid of all lockdown procedures, aiming for herd immunity, and “adopting measures to protect the vulnerable,” such as the elderly, while vaccine development continues.

“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,” reads the Declaration. “…Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”

It’s worth noting that in Iceland, an estimated 20% of the population would fall into the “vulnerable” category.

In their article, Alma, Víðir, and Þórólfur point out that up until just a few weeks ago, Iceland was essentially abiding by the model laid out in the Great Barrington Declaration. “Life in Iceland was almost normal until the third wave began and we had to take stricter measures in order to flatten the curve due to the stress on the healthcare system. This is an indication that the route the Great Barrington group wants to take is not viable if we want to keep the healthcare infrastructure up and running.”

‘It’s clear that the health system would not be able to cope’

The trio notes that the current infection rate is estimated to be 2.5 – 2.6. In order to achieve herd immunity, they write, “60% of the nation would need to be infected…If the infection rate were 6, then 83%. If 60% of the nation (219,000 people) become infected, then 7,000 people would need to be admitted to the hospital, around 1,750 admitted to intensive care, and 660 would die.” These projections are based on Iceland’s first wave statistics.

“If the virus were allowed to run rampant, it’s clear that the health system would not be able to cope with this many people and these numbers would be much higher,” they continue.

If hospitals were overrun by COVID-19 cases, healthcare for other serious illnesses and diseases would also suffer, Alma, Víðir, and Þórólfur write. And with so many people ill, the country’s infrastructure would languish.”The best way to be able to provide the healthcare services that our countrymen need is to keep infection down in society.”

‘Solidarity the best defence’

The trio calls for continued solidarity but is at pains to emphasize that the intention is not to silence those who have been critical of current virus-control measures. “It’s important that the nation continues to stand together—that’s how we’re going to fare the best,” they write. “This call for solidarity is not, however, a demand for uncritical debate. Quite the contrary, it’s important that different perspectives be considered when it comes to discussing limitations on civil rights. Quelling voices of dissent is only likely to tear apart that precious unity we need in these singular and difficult times. It is our unwavering opinion that level-headedness and solidarity are our best defences against this virus.”

COVID-19 in Iceland: Continued Border Testing Key to Christmas Celebrations

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Icelanders can tentatively look forward to Christmas with fewer restrictions if border testing measures are maintained, stated Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason in a COVID-19 briefing this morning. Authorities stated that it was too early to celebrate over dropping daily case numbers, and the coming days will determine whether harsher restrictions that took effect last week have been effective in containing Iceland’s third wave of COVID-19 infection.

Iceland reported 50 new domestic COVID-19 cases yesterday, 66% of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Active COVID-19 infections in the country number 1,022, close to the record of 1,096 reached on April 5. There are currently 23 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 2 on ventilators. At the briefing, Director of Health Alma Möller stated that the National University Hospital was managing the load well for the time being, but could expect increased strain in the coming weeks as COVID-19 symptoms worsen among those newly diagnosed.

Antibody Parties are Not a Good Idea

When questioned about a young man who proposed throwing a party for all Icelanders who had antibodies to the virus, the Chief Epidemiologist stated that he did not recommend such events. “I think it would maybe provoke people to try to get the virus so they could then go party and that could turn out badly.” Alma added: “Also people [with antibodies] can still have the virus on their hands and transmit it between people, though they themselves are immune. So we encourage everyone who has had COVID-19 to exercise caution regarding preventative measures.”

Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson also added that the regulations in place apply equally to everyone, regardless of whether they’ve had the virus or not. “We are in a country where the same laws apply to everyone and the same rules to everyone, so there will be no change regarding how many people can congregate based on whether they have antibodies or not.”

Christmas Celebrations Tied to Border Testing

Reporters asked the panel whether Icelandic residents could expect regulations to be relaxed by Christmastime. Þórólfur stated that he hoped the current measures would be successful in containing the virus, but relaxing restrictions would also depend on maintaining current border testing measures. Since Iceland implemented double testing and five-day quarantine at the border in August, Þórólfur says, no new strains of the virus have been detected in the country. Those measures will be in place until at least December 1.

Iceland Review live-tweets Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 briefings. The next briefing is scheduled for Thursday, October 15.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Authorities Address Pandemic Fatigue

COVID-19 Iceland

Pandemic fatigue is setting in among Icelanders, Director of Health Alma Möller stated during authorities’ COVID-19 briefing in Reykjavík this morning. Tightened social restrictions took effect in Iceland today, limiting gatherings to 20 people (down from 200) and closing bars, clubs, and gyms. At the briefing, authorities addressed criticism of the restrictions and emphasised the importance of working together to tackle the current wave of SARS-CoV-2 infection, which continues to rise.

Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection declared a national state of emergency yesterday due to the current spread of SARS-CoV-2. The country has reported 689 new domestic cases of COVID-19 between September 15 and October 5. The number of active cases continues to rise, though Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated growth is mostly linear (not exponential).

Authorities Respond to Criticism of Restrictions

At the briefing, Þórólfur addressed criticism of the newly-imposed restrictions. Some have dismissed them as too harsh while others have stated they don’t go far enough. The Chief Epidemiologist stated that discussion and disagreement were normal, but stressed that at some point decisions had to be made using the information at hand.

One particular criticism of the restrictions is that they have been imposed across the entire country, while most active COVID-19 cases are in the capital area. (Just over 79% of current active cases are in or near Reykjavík.) Þórólfur argued that if restrictions were not imposed unilaterally, we could end up chasing outbreaks from region to region and it could take longer to contain the virus.

Pandemic Fatigue Sets In

Director of Health Alma Möller stated that “pandemic fatigue” was setting in among the Icelandic population. She stressed that it was normal to be tired of restrictions and for some people to disagree with authorities’ decisions. However, it is important for the nation to stick together and remember how solidarity helped tackle Iceland’s first wave.

Alma underlined the importance of washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and using hand sanitizer before entering stores to protect others, as well as after to protect ourselves. She urged the public to avoid crowds, stick to their nearest and dearest for companionship, and stay home if experiencing symptoms. She thanked all those who were following regulations.

Police Did Not Store Bar Patrons’ Data

Reporters questioned authorities on group outbreaks that had occurred in several Reykjavík bars and restaurants. Following the outbreaks, card companies provided the Office of the Chief Epidemiologist with information on patrons from several venues where outbreaks had occurred. The companies came to the conclusion that providing this information was in compliance with their data protection policy. The information was used to contact those who had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 at the venues and request they come in for testing. The police did not receive the data and are not storing it.

Víðir closed the briefing by reminding the public of the small actions they can take to prevent the spread of infection, such as sanitising commonly-used surfaces. He encouraged the public to contact those who live alone as well as those in nursing homes and organise fun events to help them cope. “Endurance and perseverance will get us through this,” he stated. “Small victories lead to success. Let’s take this one day at a time.”

COVID-19 briefings will take place at 11.00am UTC on Mondays and Thursdays from now on. Iceland Review live-tweets all briefings in English on our Twitter page.

Children Over 35% of Those Currently Quarantined in Iceland

Borgarfjörður eystri

Over one third of those currently in quarantine in Iceland are under 18, RÚV reports. Over 500 children are in quarantine in the country due to possible SARS-CoV-2 exposure while 49 are in isolation due to an active COVID-19 infection. COVID-19 infections among staff or students have led to disruptions in programming in five primary schools in the capital area and led to one school closure since the academic year began in late August.

“We are concerned about the number of young people and especially primary school children who are now quarantined,” stated Chief Superintendent and Director of Iceland’s Civil Protection Department Víðir Reynisson. “We know it’s not easy to be in quarantine, I’ve tried it myself. But we also know they are doing a good job and are following instructions.”

Víðir encouraged children who were at home to use their time to read. “I challenge you to set the goal of reading one book in quarantine that is not related to school. It doesn’t mater if you’re read it before, just choose a good book and read it.”

Teenagers Account for Most Infections Among Children

Most of the children with active COVID-19 infections in Iceland are in their teens. There are currently 22 children between 13-17 who are in isolation due to infection, while there are 16 between the ages of 6-12 and 11 children aged five or younger. Children that are put into quarantine must have an adult in quarantine with them. In such situations, parents or guardians have the right to financial support through the Directorate of Labour, while parents who are caring for children with active infections are required to use their mandated sick days.

Authorities Held Briefing For Children

Víðir and Iceland’s Director of Health Alma Möller, who have both regularly held COVID-19 briefings since Iceland’s first COVID-19 case last winter, held a special briefing for children giving them an opportunity to ask questions about the pandemic.

Iceland’s COVID-19 “Trifecta” Invested with Order of the Falcon

COVID-19 Iceland

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson were invested with the Order of the Falcon by Iceland’s President yesterday. The order is a recognition of the trio’s work preventing the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in Iceland. The three have become known as þríeykið (the trifecta) among the Icelandic public, and have been highly praised for their leadership of Iceland’s successful response to the novel coronavirus. Iceland currently has 5 active cases of COVID-19.

COVID-19 Border Screening Going Well

The trifecta held a briefing in Reykjavík today to review Iceland’s newly-started initiative of screening travellers entering the country for COVID-19. Both Icelandic residents and foreigners can opt for a COVID-19 test upon arrival to Iceland or to undergo a 14-day quarantine. A total of 2,332 travellers were tested at the border between Monday and Wednesday, five of whom tested positive (not all five infections were active).

In the briefing, Þórólfur stated that these numbers were more or less what authorities had expected. He added that although screening had gone well overall, there had been a few hiccups, mostly in communicating test results to travellers. Authorities are working on shortening the wait time for results so that all those arriving through Keflavík Airport have their results within 12 hours and those arriving at other entry points within 24 hours.

Alma expressed her concern regarding an approaching nurses’ strike, as nurses are employed both in border testing and contact tracing. She stated that if the strike does occur, it is clear that authorities would need to apply for an exception in order to continue screening.

Thanked the Teams Behind Them

When asked how they felt about being invested with the Order of the Falcon, Víðir, Þórólfur, and Alma all stated they had accepted the award on behalf of the teams that have been working hard to contain the spread of the coronavirus, who are not visible to the public but have been crucial in the fight against COVID-19 in Iceland.

Iceland’s Last Daily COVID Briefing Ended in Song

COVID-19 briefing

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist, Director of Health, and Chief Superintendent of Civil Protection became a different sort of trio yesterday when they joined their voices in song to celebrate the end of Iceland’s regular COVID-19 briefings, RÚV reports. The three sang Ferðumst innanhúss (Let’s travel at home), a song released in early April to encourage Icelanders to stay home during the Easter weekend. Press and others present at the briefing joined in and cheered for the three, who have been praised for their leadership in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iceland.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Víðir Reynisson, Director of Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, have been a fixture on Icelanders’ screens over the past months as they have led the country’s daily half-hour briefings on Iceland’s local response to the pandemic. They have been widely lauded for their strategy, which has proved effective in containing the spread of COVID-19 in Iceland.

Þórólfur, who plays in a Beatles cover band, took confidently to the microphone while his two colleagues sung along a little farther from centre stage.

A video of the performance is available on RÚV’s website.