Celebratory Atmosphere During Final “Big” Vaccine Day

Yesterday marked the final big vaccination day at the Laugardalshöll arena. Approximately 10,000 individuals were vaccinated, and healthcare workers were regaled with music.

Over 75% now fully vaccinated

In the final big push of the vaccination campaign, roughly 10,000 individuals showed up to the Laugardalshöll arena yesterday to receive jabs. According to Covid.is, 75.8% of Icelanders are now fully vaccinated, with a further 12.9% having received the first dose of their vaccine.

The atmosphere in the arena yesterday was festive. “It was quite the final spurt, after this big week. Having run out of AstraZeneca doses, we were forced to create a cocktail with AstraZeneca and Pfizer,” Ragnheiður Ósk Erlendsdóttir, Head of Nursing at the Capital Area Healthcare Centre, stated in an interview with RÚV. Although the above-mentioned cocktail offers significant protection, a few opted to wait for the next shipment of AstraZeneca.

The unvaccinated can still register

As reported by RÚV, individuals waiting on their second dose of Pfizer will be called in over the next two Tuesdays. The same goes for those who have registered to receive the Janssen vaccine, and the authorities are also considering adding a small AstraZeneca day, as well. Those who have yet to be vaccinated can register through their respective healthcare providers or through the chat function on Heilsuvera.is.

Healthcare workers handling vaccinations will go on summer vacation from July 13 until August 17, and it has yet to be decided how vaccines will be administered after they return. However, a watershed moment will be reached soon when the makeshift vaccine centre at Laugardalshöll will be closed: “Yes, I expect so. Being here has been rather cosy. Really quite delightful, and the stadium managers deserve credit: they’ve been really helpful, and things have gone quite smoothly,” Ragnheiður Ósk stated.

Party into the evening

Despite the majority of Icelanders having been vaccinated, two individuals were diagnosed with COVID-19 this week. The two infections are related, and one of the individuals had already been vaccinated. Symptomatic individuals are encouraged to get tested, even if they are fully vaccinated, for they can still become infected and infect others. It is, however, highly unlikely that vaccinated individuals will become seriously ill.

Even though the final doses were administered at around 5 pm yesterday, healthcare workers who have administered vaccines at Laugardalshöll for the past weeks and months lingered in the arena. They convened to celebrate the success of their campaign and to watch a secret performer – who turned out to be Icelandic pop star Páll Óskar – step on stage (see accompanying photo above).

Three More Weeks of Vaccination Until Staff Vacation

bólusetning mass vaccination Laugardalshöll

Icelandic authorities have published the full schedule for COVID-19 vaccination in the Reykjavík capital area until July 13, 2021, when the vaccination team will go on summer vacation. Those who have not yet received the jab can now register to receive the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine using the online chat service on heilsuvera.is. Vaccination dates for this group will be scheduled based on how many requests are received.

As of the time of writing, 52.6% of Icelandic residents 16 and over are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 while an additional 28.8% have received one dose and 2.2% have recovered from COVID-19 infection or have antibodies. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist has stated that the country has already achieved herd immunity, though group outbreaks can still occur among unvaccinated people and it remains important to keep up personal protective measures such as distancing and handwashing.

Around 12,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine will be administered at Laugardalshöll mass vaccination centre today to the final age groups (16 and over) that have yet to receive their first dose. From June 28 to July 13, only second doses will be administered according to the following schedule.

Week 26

  • Monday, June 28 – Moderna
  • Tuesday, June 29 – Pfizer
  • Wednesday, June 30 – AstraZeneca
  • Thursday, July 1 – AstraZeneca

Week 27

  • Tuesday, July 6 – Pfizer
  • Wednesday, July 7 – AstraZeneca (if required; this date is not confirmed)

Week 28

  • Tuesday, July 13 (morning) – Pfizer
  • Tuesday, July 13 (afternoon) – Moderna

Vaccinations will restart again in mid-August after vaccination staff has had their summer vacation. Until now, residents in Iceland have been called in for vaccination and have been unable to book appointments themselves. A notice from capital area healthcare centres says a different procedure will be used when vaccination resumes in mid-August.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Weekend Partygoers Reminded to Show Caution

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Make sure you register your attendance at restaurants and download the updated contact tracing app Rakning C-19: these were the two directions that Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson had for the Icelandic public at today’s COVID-19 briefing in Reykjavík. Víðir stated that he understood people’s desire to let loose particularly in light of lifted restrictions this week, but a group infection in Reykjavík proves the virus is still out there and caution remains necessary.

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 COVID-19 numbers are in on covid.is.
New domestic cases: 3
New border cases: 3
Total active cases: 39
Hospitalised: 0
Vaccinated w/ at least one dose: 169,570 (45.8% of population)
Fully vaccinated: 80,464 (21.8% of population)

The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by discussing the cases being diagnosed out of quarantine within Iceland. He underlines the importance of maintaining personal preventative measures despite regulations being loosened this week. He encourages people to take care when registering their presence at restaurants and bars as it helps with contact tracing if it becomes necessary. He also encourages the public to update to the latest version of the official contact tracing app.

Þórólfur takes over to discuss the numbers. There were three infections diagnosed yesterday, two in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. For the past week, nine people have tested positive, four out of quarantine. They are connected to the group infection at the downtown location of H&M. Around 100 people are in quarantine and Þórólfur expects more infections to arise from that group. The infections are of the UK variant of the virus. Border cases have fluctuated over the past week but there is not much increase. One person is currently hospitalised due to COVID-19, none in the ICU. In the past week, one person died after a month in hospital due to COVID-19. That brings the total number of Iceland’s COVID-19 fatalities to 30.

A recent wave of infection in the Faroe Islands has led Icelandic authorities to remove the Faroe Islands from the list of low-risk regions. Restrictions were relaxed considerably in the past week and Þórólfur has noticed some unrest and worry among the public. Þórólfur says that authorities believe that if people continue to mind their personal infection prevention, we should be fine and should be able to tackle the group infections that will occur. Vaccinations are going well though fewer were vaccinated this week due to smaller shipments. They should increase again next week, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur mentions the AstraZeneca vaccine, stating that while it is safe to get one dose each from two different vaccines, cases of serious side effects are rarer after the second shot of one vaccine. People are generally encouraged to get the same vaccine for their second shot. The vaccines we are using now protect against the Indian variant, which appears to be more infectious than previous variants of the virus. (The Indian variant has been diagnosed at the border but has not spread domestically in Iceland.)

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about herd immunity and replies that percentages of vaccinated individuals to reach herd immunity varies for each virus but we won’t have contained the virus until global vaccinations have reached a certain point. As for other contagious diseases, such as measles, Iceland has had luck with keeping them at bay with general vaccinations and Þórólfur doesn’t think that COVID-19 will be any different.

The government has announced that mandatory stays in government-run quarantine facilities for those arriving from high-risk areas will end next month. People will still have to prove that they have adequate access to housing that fulfills quarantine requirements. Víðir notes that while mandatory stays in quarantine facilities will end, the facilities will remain open for people who don’t have access to adequate quarantine facilities at home or where they are staying in Iceland. He mentions migrant workers specifically. If people break quarantine, they will also be required to quarantine in the government’s quarantine facilities.

Þórólfur is asked about Janssen and the AstraZeneca vaccine and states that few countries have stopped using these vaccines altogether but most are using them with restrictions. That is also what the Icelandic healthcare system is doing, in order to take the utmost care. Þórólfur is asked about young women who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine before authorities stopped using it for their demographic. Þórólfur replies that people need to make their own decision, they can get a second dose of AZ or another vaccine.

When asked about vaccination certificates for those who have received doses of two different vaccines, Víðir answers that at first, such certificates weren’t being issued due to a glitch but it has now been fixed. Everyone should now be able to get a certificate. Þórólfur adds that such certificates will be accepted among travellers arriving in Iceland and he can see no reason why other countries should reject such certificates, as many nations are using two different vaccines to vaccinate people.

Asked about vaccine side effect research in Norway, Þórólfur states that they are monitoring all such research and will proceed based on the results of investigations. Any time a large mass of people receives vaccines, it is likely that some of them will develop symptoms that could be unrelated to the vaccines. Statistically speaking, there have been no spikes in health issues overall.

Víðir states that there’s no suspicion that the current group infection can be traced to quarantine violations.

Víðir closes the briefing by warning partygoers and people who are planning to enjoy themselves this weekend to be careful, remember to register at bars and restaurants, and have the latest version of the contact tracing app. The briefing has ended.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Janssen Vaccinations Start Next Week With No Limitations

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Iceland will start vaccinating with the Janssen vaccine and will receive additional doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Norway, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason disclosed at a regularly scheduled CIVD-19 information briefing today. He considers the government’s latest plans on tightened border restrictions before lifting restrictions on June 1 to be sensible but notes that they are dependent on vaccination progression. On the panel were Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson, and infectiologist Kamilla Sigríður Jósefsdóttir who was there to discuss vaccination proceedings.

The following is a lightly edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of today’s COVID-19 briefing.

Þórólfur starts by going over the numbers. Iceland reported 12 new domestic cases yesterday (2 out of quarantine) and 2 at the border. Total active cases: 120. 76,565 have now received one or both doses of vaccine, 20.77% of the population. Many tests were performed yesterday, 12 tested positive and 2 out of quarantine, likely connected to an earlier group outbreak. For the past few days, 75 have tested positive, 58 in quarantine. All of the cases are connected to 3 group outbreaks, the largest one is connected to a preschool. The infections have spread far and many are in quarantine. Widespread testing has found a few cases but none have tested positive in deCODE’s random testing initiative. Viral sequencing has not been completed in all cases but it’s likely that all infections diagnosed yesterday are connected to earlier group infections.

At this moment, Þórólfur will not recommend tighter domestic restrictions to the Ministry of Health but is ready to do so if the situation changes for the worse. Three patients are currently in hospital due to COVID-19, one in ICU but they will likely be discharged from the ICU today.

Þórólfur mentions the government’s bill that would give ministers more authority to impose certain border restrictions and states that as soon as the bill passes, he will prepare further action. Continued solidarity and vigilance is the key to ensuring that the government’s ambitious plans will be successful, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur thanks healthcare workers, those administering vaccines, and the Virology Department of the National University Hospital for their good work in recent weeks. He also thanks the staff at the Directorate of Health and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Response.

Kamilla takes over to discuss vaccination efforts. Over 10% of adults in Iceland are now fully vaccinated and the number will continue to rise weekly. The number will rise faster in the coming days as vaccine availability increases. Doses of the Janssen vaccine will be administered next week and Iceland will also receive 16,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Norway.

The system that we use to oversee vaccination is not perfect, some people have received invitations without having underlying conditions. If people receive an invitation without having underlying conditions, they don’t need to formally reject it, they will receive another appointment when their age group is being vaccinated.

It will take time to call everyone in with underlying conditions as the group is large. Kamilla asks the public to keep in mind that people in this priority group will not necessarily be called in by age. Even if someone with the same condition as you has received their vaccination, that does not mean you’ve been forgotten. There are various factors that may put them ahead of you on the list.

Parents and guardians of chronically ill children will be called in for vaccinations soon. Authorities are working to identify such people who should be given priority. Such as parents of chronically ill children who are registered at a different address.

The panel is now open for questions:

Kamilla does not have the data for how many people have rejected the AstraZeneca vaccine. She is working on putting together those numbers.

Why are we using a vaccine that Norwegians won’t? Kamilla answers that it is not known who is most at risk of serious side effects. While Norway has had cases of these serious side effects, we haven’t. Þórólfur notes that most countries in Europe continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, only Denmark and Norway are holding off.

Þórólfur is asked about the benchmark in the government’s bill used to define high-risk countries. He replies that it was not his decision and that many things are still unclear regarding the bill, such as if those exact numbers will be included in the bill or if the definition will be left up to the Chief epidemiologist.

There will be no limitations on who will be vaccinated with the Janssen vaccine as the cases of serious side effects don’t seem to be as serious as the AstraZeneca ones and there have been such few incidents that there’s not enough data to indicate a gender or age imbalance.

When asked if the government’s actions at the borders are enough, Þóróflur replies that there are only four countries in Europe that currently have regions that qualify as extreme-risk, meaning travellers arriving from there are required to quarantine at a quarantine hotel, but there are at least 8 countries with regions qualifying as high-risk. If one region within a country qualifies as extreme or high risk, everyone arriving from that country will need to stay at quarantine hotels, regardless of what region they are coming from. Poland is one of the countries that would qualify as high risk according to the new system.

Þórólfur is asked if the government needs to do better to reach the Polish diaspora in Iceland. The information team has made a great effort to reach the Polish community in Iceland as well as other groups, Þórólfur says. “We’re trying. This briefing for example is translated into Polish. Whether we’ve succeeded is another question.”

Víðir ends the briefing by thanking the public for their solidarity over the past winter. Tomorrow is the First Day of Summer and good things are ahead. The briefing has ended.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra Accompanies COVID-19 Vaccination Today

First mass vaccination in Laugardalshöll arena.

Some 5,000 people who will receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Reykjavík’s mass vaccination centre today will be serenaded by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra while they get their jab, Vísir reports. The ISO contacted vaccination officials and asked if they could play a concert at the centre, and the offer was readily accepted. People of all ages with underlying chronic illnesses are being vaccinated in Reykjavík today.

Around 8% of Iceland’s population has been fully vaccinated while a total of 19% have received at least one shot. The first priority groups to be offered vaccination were frontline workers and nursing home residents, followed by the oldest demographics. Now over 95% of residents over 80 have been vaccinated and most residents over 70 have received at least one dose. This week authorities are vaccinating residents with underlying chronic illnesses in all age groups. Iceland is administering COVID-19 vaccines from three manufacturers: Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Moderna.

“This is a very large group overall, but we have started on the lists of people with the most serious illnesses, this is about 30,000 people in the Reykjavík Capital Area so it will take us a few weeks or the next few weeks to work through this group,” stated Ragnheiður Ósk Erlendsdóttir, Director of Nursing at Capital Area Healthcare Centres. While those vaccinated today will receive the Pfizer vaccine, others with chronic illnesses that are scheduled to get the jab tomorrow will receive the Moderna vaccine. The 60-70 year old demographic (without underlying illnesses) will be offered vaccination starting next week, Ragnheiður says.

Read More: What’s the Status of COVID-19 Vaccination in Iceland?

It is standard procedure for all individuals to remain at the vaccination centre for 15 minutes after receiving their dose. This allows healthcare staff to monitor them and provide medical care in the rare case they exhibit allergic reactions to the drug. “It was great that the Symphony Orchestra contacted us and asked whether they could come and play for people, because everyone has to wait 15 minutes until they can leave,” Ragnheiður explained. A little bit of music should certainly help soothe nerves and pass the time for today’s vaccine recipients.

Icelandic authorities have stated that they are on track to reach their goal of vaccinating 75% of the population by the end of July.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Fourth Vaccine Arrives on Wednesday

First mass vaccination in Laugardalshöll arena.

Icelandic authorities report that the country is on track to vaccinate 75% of the population by the end of July. A total of 14,541 people received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Iceland last week and vaccination efforts are speeding up in line with distribution. Óskar Reykdalsson, Director of Capital Area Healthcare Centres told RÚV the week ahead will be a busy one, with some 5,000-6,000 expected to receive a dose tomorrow.

7.6% are Fully Vaccinated

Vaccination against COVID-19 in Iceland started on December 29, 2020. Of Iceland’s population of 368,590, a total of 61,134 have received at least one dose of vaccine. Of those, 28,056 are fully vaccinated: 7.6% of the population. By the end of April, around 90,000 individuals are expected to have received at least one dose. Authorities have stated they are on track to vaccinate 280,000 people (75% of the population) by mid-July.

Fourth Vaccine Arrives This Week

Iceland’s first shipment of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, containing 2,400 doses. A second shipment of the same size is expected on April 26. The Janssen vaccine is administered in a single dose, unlike the three other vaccines currently in use in Iceland. This means that April shipments of the vaccine will be enough to fully vaccinate 4,800 people.

Those 60-70 and Healthcare Workers Vaccinated This Week

Health authorities in Iceland have been vaccinating according to priority groups defined by the Chief Epidemiologist. The first to receive vaccines were nursing home residents and healthcare workers. Over 95% of locals 80 or older are now fully vaccinated in Iceland, while over 90% of those 70 and older have received at least one dose. This week those 60-70 years of age will be invited to receive the jab, as well as healthcare workers outside of healthcare institutions and people with chronic illnesses, groups five, six, and seven of ten defined priority groups.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Focus on Border Restrictions for “Final Stretch” of Pandemic

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s health authorities emphasised the importance of continued solidarity among the public to keep domestic infections at bay. As vaccination efforts ramp up in the country, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his hope that the coming months were in the final kilometres of a pandemic “marathon.”

The Chief Epidemiologist has submitted updated recommendations to the Health Minister regarding border restrictions. While courts ruled this week that Icelandic authorities do not have legal grounds to require certain travellers to quarantine in government-run facilities, Þórólfur stated there were other ways to tighten border regulations in order to ensure active infections from travellers do not spread into the community, such as increased monitoring of those in quarantine.

While a link has been found between rare instances of blood clots and the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, such instances are limited to women under 60, the Chief Epidemiologist stated. Iceland will thus continue administering the vaccine to those over 70 and will possibly add the 65-70 age group as vaccination efforts progress.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Jóhann B. Skúlason, Director of the Contact Tracing Team.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, all in quarantine, and 3 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 110. 27,092 are fully vaccinated, 7.4% of the population.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins: “I think it’s safe to say we’re all sick of this pandemic by now but let’s remind ourselves what our goals are.” They are: protect the healthcare system, protect vulnerable groups, keep border infections at bay and keep domestic infection rates low. We’re on the way to COVID-19 being part of history but we’re not there yet. Our most important tools to fight the pandemic are contact tracing and quarantine. We isolate those who are sick and quarantine those who have been exposed.

We want to trust people to do this together with us but we’ve seen that not everyone follows the rules. People break the rules for different reasons. Some do it intentionally, while for others, it’s a result of wishful thinking: no one expects to get sick. We have to take quarantine and isolation seriously, that’s how we beat this.

Þórólfur takes over. Five people tested positive in South Iceland the day before yesterday with a new variant of the virus. The group outbreak was traced back to an individual who had entered the country with an antibody certificate. They were most likely infected again. Such instances are very rare and at this point, it’s not reason enough for us to change our approach.

Three active cases were diagnosed at the border yesterday. All cases in the last few weeks both domestically and at the border are of the British variant. The people testing positive at the border are not all tourists, they are also people who live and work here.

Three group infections are largely responsible for the current wave of infection. Most have been traced back to people arriving from abroad who broke quarantine. It’s clear that group infections can be caused by just a few individuals who don’t follow the rules. Such group infections can easily start a new wave of the pandemic, Þórólfur says.

Courts have ruled that authorities cannot require travellers arriving in Iceland to spend their five-day quarantine in government-run quarantine hotels. Þórólfur has sent new recommendations for border restrictions to the Ministry of Health. They are not as effective, in his opinion, as the previous restrictions, but he hopes they will be successful in preventing border infections from leaking into the community.

Þórólfur goes over news of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The serious side effects are only linked to women under 60 so there will be no changes to Iceland’s policy of vaccinating people over the age of 70 with that vaccine. As vaccination efforts progress, that age limit might be moved down to 65 (for the AstraZeneca vaccine).

There have been arguments in the community about the border restrictions and Þórólfur fears that disagreement over infection prevention restrictions might negatively affect the solidarity that has been the key to keeping infections in Iceland at bay. Þórólfur: “Hopefully we’re on the last kilometres of a marathon. We need to stick together to get through this and reach the finish line safely.”

Jóhann, the head of the contact tracing team takes over. He starts by thanking his staff and complimenting their communication with the people they contact. The most important prat of the contact tracing team’s work is to get all the information necessary. The information the team gathers is confidential and can’t be turned over to the police. Information given to the contact tracing team will not lead to punishment, Jóhann states.

Registered nurses conduct the calls with everyone who has to go into quarantine, and explain the rules. Following these rules is vital for keeping the pandemic at bay. Quarantining possibly-infected individuals has proven successful in keeping the pandemic contained. All samples are sequenced by deCODE and mapping the virus variants also helps with tracing the spread of the virus.

Get tested as soon as possible, don’t wait until mild symptoms get more serious, Jóhann reminds the public. It can make a big difference. We’ve had success with our methods before, but only thanks to the participation and solidarity of the community, Jóhann states. Jóhann encourages the public to continue to co-operate with infection prevention regulations.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about his comments that he was disappointed with the verdict that authorities did not have a legal basis for requiring travellers to quarantine in government facilities when they had access to adequate facilities at home. He confirms that it was a disappointment, and also disappointing that Icelandic law did not support the regulations that were implemented. There are plenty of alternative possibilities to help ensure that infections don’t cross the borders, such as making regulations on at-home quarantine clearer and clarifying what type of housing is necessary for those in quarantine. Authorities could possibly require people to quarantine in government-run hotels if their homes don’t fulfil the requirements. They could also monitor arriving travellers more closely.

Asked if luck has played a part in things not being worse than they are, Þórólfur replies that luck is one thing but it’s also down to people’s solidarity and the public’s willingness to follow the rules.

When asked if domestic restrictions are still necessary now that most people in older demographics have been vaccinated, Þóróflur replies that the British variant is more likely to lead to hospitalisations among young people. That hasn’t happened in Iceland yet as the spread has been much less than in other countries thanks to restrictions. That could still happen however and the spread of the British variant likely wouldn’t spare Icelanders any more than it has young people in other countries. It’s too late to act when the virus has already spread, says Þórólfur.

Jóhann is asked if wrong information given to the contact tracing team has affected authorities ability to react to situations. He replies that yes, there were cases where correct information would have made it possible to act sooner and prevent infections.

Þórólfur is wary of relaxing restrictions at the borders too soon but states that authorities are taking precautions and if infections start crossing the borders, they will reconsider regulations. All authorities’ efforts have focused on implementing restrictions that are as effective as possible while being as uncumbersome as possible.

People with vaccination certificates or antibody certificates will be tested once at the border but there’s no reason according to the data at hand to require these people to be quarantined, says Þórólfur.

When asked about political disagreement over infection prevention measures, Þórólfur compliments the communication and co-operation he has had with the government. He won’t’ be demanding more authority over how infection prevention restrictions are implemented as “that’s not how he likes to work.” Political unrest can lead to cracks in the public’s solidarity but he’s happy that polls show 90% support for infection prevention measures among the public. While he has the support of the government and good co-operation with the Minister of Health, he feels secure in their efforts.

Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by encouraging the public to continue to show solidarity in infection prevention methods. The briefing has ended.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Calls to Clarify Legislation on Quarantine Hotels

Fosshotel quarantine Reykjavík COVID-19

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason is calling on the country’s government to clarify the legal framework for requiring travellers to quarantine in designated government-run facilities. Þórólfur expressed his disappointment in a ruling made in the Reykjavík District Court yesterday that found the state had no legal grounds for requiring several travellers to quarantine in a hotel when they had adequate facilities to do so at home. The ruling is being appealed by authorities.

Iceland tightened border regulations on April 1, requiring all travellers arriving from designated high-risk areas for COVID-19 to complete their mandatory five-day quarantine in designated government facilities. The regulation was set after health authorities found travellers were breaching quarantine regulations, leading to community transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several guests at the hotel challenged the regulation in the Reykjavík District Court, which ruled in their favour. The Chief Epidemiologist has spoken in support of the quarantine facilities in Reykjavík, where at least three travellers tested positive for COVID-19 since the facilities began operation last week.

At a briefing today, Þórólfur expressed confidence that authorities would meet their goal of vaccinating a majority of the population against COVID-19 by the end of July 2021. Some 15,000 people are scheduled to receive a jab in the country this week, while 22,344 (6.6% of the population) are already fully vaccinated and an additional 25,915 have received their first dose. Confirmed distribution schedules ensure Iceland will receive enough doses to fully vaccinate 136,000 people by the end of June. That number does not include vaccines from several manufacturers who have yet to confirmed their shipping schedule.

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

 

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

The panel will likely address yesterday’s Reykjavík District Court ruling that determined health authorities did not have legal grounds to require a number of travellers to quarantine in government-run facilities in Reykjavík when they had access to adequate facilities at home.

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has expressed his support of mandatory hotel quarantine for those arriving from high-risk areas, calling on the government to pass legislation in support of the regulation, which took effect April 1.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, all in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Total active cases: 123. 24,344 have been fully vaccinated, 6.6% of the population.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts by going over the news from the eruption. New fissures have opened and the eruption site is closed to the public today. Scientists are working on mapping the new situation at the eruption site and emergency responders are working on new ways to ensure travellers safety.

Back to COVID: Rögnvaldur says we’ve done pretty well so far, managing to keep our healthcare system running and for the most part keeping the pandemic at bay. Infection prevention restrictions are, by nature, restrictive and many have suffered due to them, but our success is not a coincidence. We’ve listened to the experts and worked hard to ensure our success.

Þórólfur takes over. We’re still seeing several new domestic cases each day but the majority have been in quarantine. We’re still seeing cases outside quarantine that have proved hard to trace. We’re not seeing an increase in infection rates, and Þórólfur thanks the public for their efforts in following personal infection prevention. All new domestic infections are of the British variant. The situation at the hospital is good, no one is hospitalised with COVID-19 but we might still expect new hospitalisations. The current domestic regulations are in effect until April 15.

Yesterday, the district court ruled that there aren’t clear legal grounds for making stays in quarantine hotels mandatory for arriving travellers. Þórólfur says he considers the decision “unfortunate” and adds that it will be appealed. Five travellers tested positive at the border yesterday and 18 in total have tested positive with an active infection since March 25, all with the British variant and most of them residents of Iceland. Þórólfur believes that it’s necessary to clarify the legal framework for infection prevention regulations in order to ensure continued success in containing the pandemic in Iceland.

Þórólfur addresses vaccine rollout. Distribution schedules have been confirmed for vaccines for 136,000 people by the end of June. That’s not counting vaccines from several producers who haven’t confirmed their shipping schedule yet. There’s every reason to believe the government will be successful in meeting its goal to vaccinate a majority of the population by the end of July. 15,000 people are scheduled to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this week in Iceland.

Director of Health Alma takes over. She states that even with vaccination efforts revving up, we still haven’t achieved herd immunity and at the moment, the pandemic is soaring in the countries around us. There’s still the threat of new variants entering the country. Infection prevention restrictions at the border have proved a learning experience and things are still up in the air so we still have to be careful domestically.

Get tested as soon as possible if you are experiencing any symptoms, even if they’re mild, Alma says. She cautions that symptoms can vary and goes over the most important symptoms, including cough, fatigue, and muscle aches. It’s important to stay at home until you receive confirmation that you are negative for SARS-CoV-2. Alma is grateful that COVID infection numbers haven’t risen drastically over the past week and thanks healthcare staff for their efforts as well as the public. Let’s continue to stick together and keep a level head. This isn’t over yet but it’s not long now.

The panel opens for questions. A reporter brings up a recent announcement from the European Medicines Agency regarding a link between the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and blood clots. Will it change the approach to vaccinating with AstraZeneca in Iceland? Þórólfur will look into new information on the AstraZeneca vaccine as authorities have done before. Research has shown that younger people are at risk for blood clots. If there’s new information on an increased threat for older people we’ll take that into consideration.

“If you could decide, would you close the borders entirely?” A reporter asks the Chief Epidemiologist. Þórólfur: What we’ve been trying to do is find the people who are carrying an infection and basing our efforts on what’s worked before. I don’t think closing the country is possible, what does that even mean? Þórólfur: There are Icelandic residents abroad who have to be able to come home and people here who have to be able to go abroad for work and I don’t think closing the country is possible. We have to find other ways to minimise risk.

People who choose to leave the quarantine hotels are informed that they need to have suitable accommodation for continuing quarantine. They don’t have the possibility of verifying that. Information on accommodation and rules for quarantine are available at covid.is.

The court case regarding quarantine hotels seems to centre on the definition of quarantine centres and what their role is. Þórólfur hopes that the matter will end with the government being able to require people to spend quarantine in designated government-run facilities. If not, we won’t be able to curb the pandemic as effectively and won’t be able to relax restrictions to the same extent. One of the aspects of the hotel quarantine that was most criticised was guests’ inability to go outside. Alma states that that’s clearly something that needs to be worked out. Asked whether the dissemination of information could be improved for staff and guests in hotel quarantine, Þórólfur said that was likely the case.

Alma emphasises that as vaccination efforts continue, new variants remain a threat, especially as new variants are more likely to infect younger people and lead to serious illness in younger demographics as well as older groups.

“When we finish vaccinating locals 70+ will we continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine?” Probably, until everyone 65+ has been vaccinated. Iceland’s health authorities are looking into the option of administering the second dose for people who have received one dose of AstraZeneca with a different vaccine. No decisions have been made on the matter at this point.

Contact tracing officials are discovering quarantine breaches through viral sequencing. When they discover the spread of new variants, they go back and find the people who brought the cases over the border, who might, when pressed, admit that they didn’t follow quarantine regulations to the letter. People know if they haven’t been following the rules to the letter and are reluctant to tell authorities. Alma emphasises that these breaches are not always intentional and urges those in quarantine to go over the quarantine rules carefully. That’s why the quarantine hotel method was implemented, to eliminate the temptation of breaking the rules. Þórólfur believes that higher fines or more threats of quarantine infraction repercussions aren’t a solution. A more effective approach would be to monitor people in quarantine more closely.

Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by saying that although vaccination deliveries are speeding up, it’s clear this isn’t over yet and we need to keep our guard up. The briefing has ended.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Vaccination Update

Nearly 100% of Icelandic residents over 80 are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By the end of today, 90% of staff at Iceland’s largest hospital will have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Iceland is still far from reaching herd immunity against COVID-19, however: just 5.6% of the population of 368,590 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 while an additional 6.7% have received one dose.

Janssen Vaccine Expected in April

Iceland began administering COVID-19 vaccines on December 29, 2020. Since then, 45,422 have received at least one dose of either the Moderna, Pfizer, or AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, which Icelandic authorities acquired via collective contracts through the European Commission. The European Medicines Agency recently approved a fourth COVID-19 vaccine produced by Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and Iceland expects to receive 4,800 doses from the manufacturer in April. That will be enough to vaccinate 4,800 people, as the Janssen vaccine is administered in a single dose. Icelandic health authorities aim to vaccinate over 50% of the population by the end of July. Vaccine delivery is expected to speed up in the coming months as manufacturers ramp up production.

90% of Hospital Staff Have Begun Vaccination

The National University Hospital is not only Iceland’s largest hospital and location of its COVID-19 Ward, it is also the country’s largest workplace, with some 6,000 employees. Around 90% of the hospital’s staff have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine or will receive their first dose today. The hospital paused vaccination of its staff when Icelandic authorities suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month. Iceland made the move alongside several other European countries while the European Medicines Agency investigated instances of blood clots among individuals who had received the vaccine. Further research showed the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks. Icelandic authorities decided last week to resume use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on those 70 and older, as new research had shown its safety and efficacy among the demographic. At a briefing last week, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated that the rare blood clot issues that may be linked to the vaccine were limited to younger people.

Some 340 Hospital Staff in Vaccine Limbo

The decision to limit the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to the older demographic leaves some hospital staff in limbo. RÚV reports that around 340 staff members of the National University Hospital who received one dose of AstraZeneca earlier this month are in the age group that’s now considered too young to receive the vaccine. Hildur Helgadóttir, project manager of the hospital’s epidemic committee, stated the hospital is waiting for a decision from the Chief Epidemiologist on how to proceed with the vaccination of those staff members. She noted, however, that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine provides considerable protection against contracting the SARS-CoV-2 as well as developing serious illness.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Resume AstraZeneca Vaccinations For 70+

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

At an information briefing earlier today, Director of Health Alma Möller, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson discussed the recently tightened restrictions, news that Iceland will resume vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and how hospitals and the healthcare system are preparing for the expected rise in infections and hospitalizations.

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

COVID-19 Numbers: Iceland reported 8 new domestic cases yesterday (all in quarantine) and 8 at the border. Total active cases have risen to 89. 20,325 people (5.5% of the population) have been fully vaccinated and an additional 19,153 (5.2%) have received their first shot.

Rögnvaldur begins the briefing by discussing being in isolation and quarantine with their families. “I know it’s hard.”

Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. Four days ago there was a cluster infection in one family that meant several hundred people are now in quarantine. Its origin isn’t known but it is caused by the British variant of the virus. We can expect to see more cases over the coming days but hopefully, the majority of these cases will be in quarantine. Eight cases were caught yesterday, all in quarantine. Many tests were taken yesterday and Þórólfur encourages everyone to get tested if they’re experiencing any symptoms. The virus has spread in the community, and around 700 people are now in quarantine. This is some cause for concern, as the British variant is more contagious and causes more serious illness, based on data from the countries around us. “To stop the further spread, I believed it was necessary to react quickly and decisively, and regulations based on my suggestions took effect on midnight.”

Þórólfur hopes this reaction will mean that this wave will die down quickly but it will still likely take 2-3 weeks. Þórólfur discusses criticism of his decision to keep kindergartens open, states that there are no epidemiological reasons to close schools for the youngest children and it would be disruptive for the healthcare system. Þórólfur discusses the AstraZeneca vaccine and the decision to resume vaccination and use it for individuals older than 70. “New research proves its efficacy for older people.” The blood clot issues connected with the AstraZeneca vaccine are limited to younger people so Iceland will be vaccinating people over 70 with the vaccine, perhaps even people over 65 or 60 later on.

The current development is a disappointment but not one that is very surprising. Þórólfur is hopeful that we can use our experience from earlier waves of the pandemic to get through this quicker than before. “We need to show solidarity, it’s what’s gotten us this far and what will continue to be the key to our success.” Þórólfur urges people to keep up with personal infection prevention habits.

Alma takes over and discusses hospitalisation rates, something she expects will increase as the British variant takes hold in Iceland. The National Hospital is preparing for this situation, those preparations include being ready to accept children with the illness and completing vaccination of its staff. Testing facilities are busy, expecting to take up to 3000 tests today and the panel encourages everyone to get tested if experiencing any symptoms. Test appointment can be made at www.heilsuvera.is and by calling 1700 or their personal healthcare clinic. The Directorate of health is also bringing back registrations for the healthcare professionals reserve forces, asking all medically trained personnel willing to work to sign up but hopes that the current restrictions will mean that they won’t be needed.

Rögnvaldur discusses Easter and possible travel plans. Christmas bubbles were a success last time and perhaps people should consider an Easter bubble. If travelling, Rögnvaldur encourages people to stay at their accommodation as much as possible to minimise the risk of infection, shop for the trip close to their home and avoid using services and facilities in their destination.

He briefly discusses hikes to the eruption site, asking people to stay in separate groups, not mingle at the eruption site, wear masks and be mindful of winter weather conditions, wear warm clothes and bring plenty of food, adding that masks such as the ones worn to prevent COVID-19 infection offer no protection against toxic gases from the eruption.

The panel is not open to questions. Þórólfur states that the decision to close gyms but keep hair salons open is because there are larger groups in gyms than hair salons. When asked about serious illness by the British variant, Þórólfur replies that currently there are too few people hospitalised with the British variant to estimate the overall illness caused by the variant but they trust data from the countries around us. Alma states “we’re still learning how this new variant behaves.”

Þórólfur: Prioritisation of vaccination remains unchanged despite new strains being more likely to affect younger people and children.

700 people are in quarantine, can we estimate how many of them will test positive? Þórólfur answers that in the past about 5% of people in quarantine test positive but that depends on variants and how extensive quarantines are.

A journalist states that only 5% of passengers arriving at the airport take the Flybus according to RE representatives, Rögnvaldur replies that police monitor the airport and how arriving passengers get home, but that they will look into this information further.

When asked about children playing together during this elongated easter holiday, Þórólfur states that the goal of the restrictions is to minimise mingling and gathering. They haven’t issued guidelines on who can play together, classmates or friends but the general rule is to avoid mingling and limiting contact with unrelated groups and that applies to children as well.

When asked about people’s willingness to be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Þórólfur states that research shows that the vaccine is safe and effective for the older age group. Alma adds that the serious side effects of this vaccine are less common in that group.

“It’s normal to be sad, scared, and angry and we have to give space to those feelings,” states Rögnvaldur. The next step is to realise what needs to be done and how we need to act to get through this.