Vaccinated People with Symptoms Should Get Tested, Says Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

If you have symptoms that could indicate COVID-19 you should get tested, even if you are fully vaccinated, says Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist. Four fully vaccinated tourists tested positive for COVID-19 in Iceland between Thursday and Monday. So far there is no evidence the infections have spread to others.

Many tourists go get tested for COVID-19 toward the end of their trip in Iceland due to entry requirements in other countries. Four such tests revealed positive results for four vaccinated tourists in recent days. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason told RÚV it is unlikely that the tourists infected others. He added that vaccinated individuals are also less likely to spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus when carrying it. “It is most likely that they were infected on their way to [Iceland] and I base that on the fact that we have almost no virus in the country,” Þórólfur stated.

Iceland currently has 23 active cases of COVID-19 and an incidence rate of 1.9 per 100,000 residents. Over 70% of the population has received one or both doses of COVID-19 vaccine while 49.1% are fully vaccinated. All domestic restrictions were lifted in the country last Friday though restrictions at the border remain, including testing of all arriving travellers and mandatory quarantine for those without vaccine or antibody certificates.

Þórólfur stressed the importance of continued testing within Iceland, despite the country’s high rate of vaccination. “We need to encourage people with symptoms to get tested. That’s declined quite a bit recently but I know there are a lot of respiratory infections in the community. So we still want to encourage people to go get tested whether they are vaccinated or not if they get symptoms that could point to COVID-19.”

COVID-19 in Iceland: Rise in Domestic Cases Outside of Quarantine

mask use social distancing

No connection has been found between the five domestic COVID-19 cases diagnosed outside quarantine in Iceland yesterday, though contact tracing is ongoing. At a briefing in the capital today, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated there were indications domestic infection rates were rising and it was clear authorities had not yet managed to contain the local outbreak. The current domestic restrictions, Iceland’s strictest since the pandemic began, are valid until April 15, and Þórólfur expressed his hope the situation would improve by that date. Authorities nevertheless plan to reopen schools next week following the Easter holiday.

Tighter restrictions take effect at Iceland’s borders tomorrow, requiring children to undergo COVID-19 testing. Travellers from defined high-risk areas will also be required to complete their mandatory five-day quarantine in government-run quarantine hotels. When asked whether this was an infringement on travellers’ freedom, Þórólfur stated that he did not believe so: authorities were reacting to evidence some travellers had been breaching quarantine. The regulation is an attempt to preserve our success in containing the virus domestically, the Chief Epidemiologist stated.

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

 

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

Yesterday’s numbers are up on covid.is. Iceland reported 8 new domestic cases yesterday (5 out of quarantine) and 2 at the border. Total active cases rose to 118. 20,734 have been fully vaccinated (5.6% of the population). Nearly a third of active cases in Iceland (32) are among children (1-17 years of age) following group outbreaks at several schools in the Reykjavík capital area.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins by addressing the ongoing eruption which is popular among locals. It’s a big project to direct traffic. Authorities are not encouraging the public to visit the eruption but understand the desire to see it. The site will be open for 12 hours per day over the coming Easter weekend. Rögnvalur encourages visitors to the site to practice infection prevention: keep a distance and bring hand sanitiser.

Þórólfur takes over to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic domestically. Five of yesterday’s 8 infections were outside quarantine. There are indications that the number of domestic infections is growing. Yesterday’s infections were diagnosed in the Southwest region and the South, indicating that we have not contained the domestic outbreak yet. The British variant is responsible for these domestic infections. Some of the recent domestic infections are difficult to trace but contact tracing is ongoing.

It is too early to say when we will contain these infections, but Þórólfur hopes it will be within the next two weeks. Current domestic restrictions are valid until April 15. We can expect more infections to be diagnosed among the several hundred people who are currently in quarantine. That is in line with what we have seen before: around 5% of those who are quarantined later test positive.

The state of the hospital is currently good: only one person is in hospital due to COVID-19. However, serious illness takes 1-2 weeks to develop so this could change in the coming weeks. If the number of travellers coming to Iceland increases in the near future we could see more infections diagnosed at the border, but hopefully, the current regulations will prevent those infections from entering the community. Þórólfur says he is happy with the Minister of Health’s updates to border regulations, which tighten border restrictions, requiring children to be tested and travellers from high-risk areas to quarantine in designated government facilities.

On vaccination distribution: we expect to receive vaccines for 80,000 people by the end of April, says Þórólfur, and hopefully, vaccination can proceed more quickly in the coming weeks. Þórólfur encourages the public to undergo testing even if they experience minor symptoms and remain isolated until they receive a negative result.

Director of Health Alma Möller takes over. She reminds the public who is eligible to register for the health workers reserve force to do so if possible. The healthcare system is in a good place at the moment but it’s good to be prepared.

Alma reminds that the British variant infects children more than other variants and can lead to more serious illness among children. She says that few children have needed to be admitted to hospital at this point though a significant number are currently in isolation. Alma reminds that covid.is has information and guidelines on how to discuss COVID-19 with children. Alma wishes the public a happy Easter and reminds them to practice personal infection prevention and encourages them to undergo testing even during the holiday if they are experiencing symptoms.

The panel opens for questions. “What are your recommendations for travel over Easter weekend?” Rögnvaldur says authorities understand that some want to go up to their cabins over the long weekend. He encourages the public to gather supplies before setting off to minimise the risk of contact infection. He also recommends creating a bubble of contacts.

The five diagnosed outside of quarantine yesterday, did they come into contact with many people? Þórólfur says contact tracing is ongoing and it is too early to tell.

Are the infections connected to gatherings at the eruption site? Þórólfur says there are no indications so far that is the case.

Why are you assuming that some of the infections outside quarantine are connected to border cases? Þórólfur says that sequencing of infections in recent days has made it possible to trace them to infections at the border.

People arriving in Iceland from high-risk areas will be required to quarantine in government hotels as of tomorrow, is that not infringing on people’s freedom? Þórólfur answers that he does not think so. There have been indications that people have been breaching quarantine and authorities have to react to that. The regulation is an attempt to preserve our success in containing the virus domestically.

There are many children in isolation currently, will schools reopen after the Easter break? Þórólfur says that is the plan though he is ready to make new recommendations if the situation changes.

Will you address comments from the tourism industry that you are undermining the government’s measures by expressing doubt of the colour-coded border system that is expected to take effect on May 1? Þórólfur says the comment is wrong, saying that health authorities’ recommendations are based on science and he has a legal responsibility as Chief Epidemiologist to recommend measures to the government. It is too early to discuss border measures from May 1.

Alma adds that Iceland has not gotten far in vaccination efforts and the British variant is more infectious than previous variants that have spread in Iceland, these are things that must be taken into account. She adds that everyone is on the same team.

How “temporary” is this situation? Will we have to vaccinate against COVID-19 on a yearly basis? Alma says that vaccination should proceed faster in the coming months. Vaccine manufacturers are preparing for the possibility that vaccines will have to be updated to be effective against newer variants. That is a possibility, she says. The virus may be with us for longer though we won’t always have limiting regulations as we do now.

Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing: This is a big challenge but we know what we have to do. Solidarity has been the key to our success so far and that’s what we’re asking for now. We must remember that it’s the virus that is our enemy. Rögnvaldur wishes the public a happy Easter. The briefing has ended.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Pre-Departure Testing Could Eliminate Need for Traveller Quarantine

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist is optimistic that requiring travellers to take a PCR test before departure to the country along with a test at the border will be enough to stop infections from crossing the border and eliminate the need to quarantine travellers. All individuals arriving in Iceland from abroad must currently undergo a test at the border, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test.

As of tomorrow, travellers will be required to present a negative PCR test certificate in addition to the required five-day quarantine and double testing. Authorities hope the measure will lead to fewer travellers testing positive at the end of the five-day quarantine, therefore making it possible to lift quarantine requirements for travellers from May 1. From that date, Iceland is expected to adopt a colour-coded approach to border restrictions, where travellers from countries with a “green” rating would be exempt from quarantine upon arrival.

Iceland has been successful in containing the pandemic locally: and no domestic cases have been reported outside of quarantine since February 1. Authorities expect to relax domestic restrictions, which currently cap gatherings at 20 people, as early as next week. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist, however, stated he was “almost certain” that the virus was still present in the community and any loosening of restrictions would proceed very slowly to prevent another wave of infection.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases and 2 at the border. Total active cases: 26. 8 are in hospital and 9,658 have been fully vaccinated (2.6% of the population). New border regulations take effect in Iceland tomorrow, requiring all arriving travellers to present a negative PCR test before departure in addition to double testing and quarantine in Iceland.

The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers: “Things continue to go well for us.” The last active domestic infection diagnosed outside of quarantine was February 1. No one in hospital due to COVID-19 has an active infection, 8 are recovering from COVID infection and no one is in intensive care. Two were diagnosed at the border yesterday and 22 have been diagnosed at the border within the past week, 15 with active COVID infections.

Þórólfur goes over the new regulations that take effect tomorrow. Arriving travellers are required to present a negative PCR test administered no earlier than 72 hours before their departure for Iceland. The new regulations also permit authorities to place arriving travellers in government-run quarantine facilities (hotels) if they are carrying a more contagious variant of the virus or if they do not have access to adequate quarantine or isolation facilities.

The new border regulations will minimise the risk of new domestic infections within Iceland. We will also gain experience and knowledge of whether a second test after a five-day quarantine is truly needed, if travellers present a negative PCR test taken before departure. This information will be helpful when we start relaxing border restrictions (expected from May 1) and implementing the requirements for a PCR test pre-departure now will give us valuable information that will be useful later.

Next week, Þórólfur will present the Minister of Health with suggestions for further relaxing domestic restrictions. Þórólfur addresses discourse suggesting that Iceland’s border restrictions are the harshest in Europe and compares several aspects of Iceland’s regulations to those of neighbouring countries. Nine countries in Europe have an active ban on unnecessary travel, which Iceland does not. Travellers to many other countries in Europe are required to quarantine for 10 or 14 days, compared to just five days in Iceland. Iceland is one of only two countries in Europe exempting people who have already recovered from COVID-19 from tests and quarantine upon arrival. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason: In no way does Iceland have the harshest restrictions in Europe, and a case can even be made that they are among the most relaxed.

Þórólfur: At the same time as we’re protecting the border, we’re slowly but surely vaccinating the nation. We’re doing well but we must be careful. Early detection is key and now the number of people getting tested is dropping. Þórólfur encourages the public to get tested if they’re experiencing any symptoms at all, no matter how mild. Þórólfur cautions that it is almost certain the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still out there in the community and could possibly cause a new wave if we relax restrictions too quickly.

The panel opens for questions. When asked if new border restrictions are also intended to discourage Icelanders from unnecessary travel abroad, Þórólfur replies that Iceland’s authorities have for some time been discouraging people from unnecessary travel.

“When will we reach herd immunity?” We don’t know but Þórólfur hopes that our experience at the border will give us the data we need to figure out what border restrictions are necessary. Þórólfur: If a negative PCR test before departure and a negative test on arrival in Iceland are enough to keep infections from crossing the border, that would be great, and I’m hopeful that that is the case. Þórólfur declines to speculate on long-term vaccination schedules, he will only base his words on the distribution schedules already in hand.

One reporter notes that as more people are vaccinated, more are reporting side effects. Þórólfur responds that there has been no causal link found between symptom reports or deaths and COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland. Furthermore, death rates have not risen since vaccination began. It seems the AstraZeneca vaccine causes slighty more flu-like symptoms when the immune system is triggered but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from taking the vaccine, says Þórólfur.

When asked about the vaccination schedule for younger people outside priority groups, Þórólfur states that it will likely be a long time before healthy 35-year-olds will be vaccinated. There are several priority groups and people with underlying conditions that will be vaccinated first. Þórólfur says Iceland will receive doses for 45,000 people by the end of March. Frontline workers and those over 70 are the current priority. Around 40,000 should be vaccinated by the end of March.

“When will we be able to take down our masks?” Þórólfur says that is a good question and preaches caution in this respect. Þórólfur: Will Icelanders continue to use masks in the future? Will two-metre distancing become a given? The Chief Epidemiologist says changes to mask regulations will be among the last regulations to be relaxed. We must proceed slowly with relaxing restrictions. The third wave began in bars and gyms, says Þórólfur. We have classified those institutions as high-risk, as have other nations. We must proceed with particular caution when it comes to relaxing restrictions in these institutions.

When asked about the possibility of falsified vaccination or PCR test certificates, Þórólfur stated that such a prospect is worrying. Víðir stated that falsifying official documents is a crime and is subject to fines according to Icelandic law.

Þórólfur thinks the Janssen vaccine decision in March will bring good news, but it’s taking a little too long for his liking. Although he is sure European authorities have their reasons. Þórólfur states a vaccination calendar, intended to give various groups a better idea of when they will be offered COVID-19 vaccination, will likely be made public today.

When asked if Iceland was too late in responding to a spike in cases last year, Þóróflur states that the fact of the matter is that we know how the last two waves started, the third and most serious wave caused by two tourists who weren’t following quarantine rules. That shows the importance of having clear regulations at the borders. Since restrictions were revised last summer, no infections crossing the border have caused new waves of the pandemic. Þórólfur doesn’t find it useful to focus on possible mistakes, but rather focus on the general success we’ve had since the third wave, stopping several variants of the virus from entering the country and local community. Other European countries are now discovering the importance of good border regulations.

There is now increased surveillance of airport pick-ups since it was found that many were picking up friends or relatives at the airport, a breach of quarantine regulations. “New Zealand imposed harsh restrictions immediately after new domestic cases. Is that a possibility in Iceland if domestic cases come up?” Þórólfur congratulates New Zealand on their general success, but states that their approach is more extreme than Iceland’s. While we don’t currently have the same freedom as they do, if we experience a backlash, the restrictions won’t be as extreme.

Þórólfur won’t submit a memo for relaxed restrictions before the weekend. He would not disclose the nature of his recommendations but reminded the press that school regulations are about to expire and authorities must attend to them as well. The briefing has ended.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next information briefing, scheduled for Monday, February 22 at 11.03am UTC.

 

Travellers to Iceland Must Present Negative PCR Test at Border

As of February 19, all travellers entering Iceland from abroad will be required to provide a certificate of a negative PCR test administered no more than 72 hours before their departure. This measure is in addition to Iceland’s existing double testing and five-day quarantine requirements. Border officials will also have the authority to place certain travellers in government-monitored quarantine hotels, according to new border regulations decided on by Iceland’s cabinet today.

Certificates Shown Before Departure

Passengers will be required to present their certificate before boarding their flight or ship to Iceland as well as upon arrival to the country. Icelandic authorities will only accept certificates in English, Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish. Travellers will also be required to register their results electronically before departure.

Those with Contagious Variants Must Isolate in Government Facilities

According to the new regulations, authorities can place travellers who test positive in their first border test in a quarantine hotel if it is demonstrated that they do not have access to adequate facilities to isolate or quarantine. As of February 19, travellers will be required to isolate in a government-run quarantine hotel if they test positive for a variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is known to be more contagious or be more likely to cause serious illness, such as the British, South African, and Brazilian variants.

Tightened Borders to Protect Domestic Success

In order to protect the nation’s success in containing the pandemic locally, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason recommended the Health Ministry impose further restrictions at the country’s borders. Ensuring active COVID-19 cases do not cross the borders is key to being able to relax domestic restrictions, according to Þórólfur.

These border regulations will be in place until May 1, when new regulations are expected to take effect that may allow travellers from low-risk areas to forego quarantine in Iceland, though they would still be required to undergo testing.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Border Testing Eliminates Need for Border Closure

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

At a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s health authorities celebrated the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic domestically. The country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated it may be possible to loosen restrictions earlier than the planned date of February 17, though it would depend on numbers staying low. Þórólfur emphasised, however, that the nation must proceed with caution and relax restrictions slowly to avoid another local outbreak.

Iceland has reported 11 new domestic COVID-19 infections over the past week, all of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Total active infections have been dropping steadily and currently number 47. With an incidence rate below 20, Iceland is doing much better containing the virus than any other country monitored by the ECDC.

Iceland’s border regulations – which implemented PCR testing for arriving travellers last June and recently made double testing mandatory – has played a large part in containing the pandemic locally, the Chief Epidemiologist underlined. While 450 different strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been diagnosed at the borders, just 13 have been diagnosed domestically. The success of Iceland’s border measures has prevented the need for fully closing the borders, according to Þórólfur.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Deputy Head of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 2 new domestic cases (both in quarantine), and 6 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 47. 17 are in hospital and 4,820 have completed vaccination.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur starts the meeting by mentioning Iceland’s success in containing the pandemic but warning against complacency. It only takes one infection to start another wave. Rögnvaldur says authorities have seen indications the public is relaxing infection prevention practices more than warranted and urges the public to consider their plans for the coming weekend and ask themselves if their plans are something they can be proud of after the fact.

Þórólfur takes over and goes over the numbers. There were two domestic infections, both in quarantine. For the past few days, plenty of people have gotten tested and he thanks the public for responding to authorities’ appeal to get tested if you experience symptoms. Fewer people have tested positive at the border recently, and fewer passengers are arriving. Þórólfur: In conclusion, we’ve had success in keeping the pandemic contained. In the new year, 90 people have tested positive for the virus in Iceland, most in quarantine at the time. 48 have tested positive for the British strain of the virus, 8 domestically, but all domestic cases were in close contact with people testing positive at the border and this viral strain hasn’t yet spread domestically. There have been no documented cases of the South African and Brazilian strains. While Þórólfur is grateful and appreciative of the nation’s success at keeping the virus at bay, he states that he is not yet considering relaxing restrictions before current restrictions expire on February 17. “We must proceed very carefully when it comes to relaxing restrictions.” Restrictions are constantly being re-evaluated and authorities will continue to monitor the situation closely and make changes as they see fit.

Around 56,000 adults have arrived in Iceland since border testing was implemented in August and 97% of them have undergone at least one test upon arrival. Þórólfur emphasises that border testing has been incredibly effective in helping Iceland contain the pandemic locally. Þórólfur: Until now, we’ve managed to keep the UK strain from spreading, one that’s proved destructive in other countries. We know what we have to do to keep the pandemic at bay and we have to use that knowledge and apply it to our daily lives. We can’t let the pandemic spread with abandon once we’re so close to achieving widespread vaccination, says Þórólfur.

The panel now opens for questions. Þóróflur is asked whether there is further news of the Pfizer negotiations but he has no new details to disclose. Icelandic authorities have offered the country as a testing ground for vaccine research, and consider it a good location for a study on if and how the virus spreads in an area with widespread vaccination, as well as how many need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Other questions a study could answer: can those who have been vaccinated transmit the virus and infect others? How does vaccination affect different viral strains? Is further research on side effects and allergic reactions possible?

Þórolfur is asked about people who have recovered from the virus and asked if they can still be contagious. He answers that no such information has been confirmed, that is not in line with how most other viruses behave and he would take such information with the utmost scrutiny. Þórólfur: There’s no evidence to suggest that people who have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and recovered can carry the virus and spread it.

Þórólfur states that it’s likely that the British, South African and Brazilian strains of the virus are more contagious, but there is no evidence as of yet that they are more deadly. Pfizer has announced that their COVID-19 vaccine protects against the British and the South African strain. We don’t know as much about the Brazilian strain, says Þórólfur. We’re being very careful because of the British strain of the virus. We’re detecting it at the border so we’re at risk and we want to avoid a wave like the countries around us have experienced.

The restrictions we’ve put in place since last summer have been very effective at keeping the virus from crossing our borders. Other countries have not imposed such restrictions until now. Other countries have decided to close their borders entirely: what is the justification against doing so in Iceland? Þórólfur says Iceland’s border regulations have been very effective in preventing cases from entering the community from abroad. Other countries have not had such measures in place since last summer, as Iceland has, and are thus reacting more drastically now such as by completely closing their borders. They should have implemented restrictions earlier to avoid the need for harsh restrictions now. Iceland has shown that border measures are very important in preventing the spread of COVID-19. There is not necessarily any reason for us to close our borders now. We have a good system in place for preventing the spread of the virus.

Þórólfur says it’s a good possibility restrictions will be relaxed earlier than February 17. Asked for timeframes and details, Þórólfur states that he’ll give the same reply he’s given often before. There are many factors to consider and nothing is certain yet. He does state that if we’re still seeing as few infections next week as we are seeing now, he will consider relaxing restrictions further, but it will have to be done slowly so as to avoid a new wave of infection.

Þórólfur is again asked about border closures, and if Iceland being an island is an important factor to consider. He replies that the restrictions at the border have proven effective, as data shows, and he sees no professional or scientific reasons for closing the border fully.

We’re still at a code orange (in terms of virus risk level), will that change and will it change regionally? We’ll probably have the same codes for the whole country unless there are major changes.

Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing. “Þórólfur and I have a serious tone because this is a serious matter but we still have cause to celebrate.” We should enjoy the things we’re able to do while still continuing to be careful. Don’t travel abroad unless absolutely necessary, follow the rules and wash your hands frequently. Use masks where you can’t keep a distance of two metres.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing, scheduled for Monday, February 1.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Double Border Test and Five-Day Quarantine Made Compulsory For Arriving Passengers

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir

A free double test for COVID-19 with a five-day quarantine period between tests will be mandatory for all passengers arriving in Iceland from today until May 1, the government decided this morning. Up until today, arriving passengers had the option of skipping the test, choosing to undergo a 14-day quarantine instead.

Actions taken to curb the spread of the pandemic’s third wave have proven relatively successful, with only a handful of people testing positive for COVID-19 each day in Iceland. The number of people testing positive at the border is now routinely higher than the number of domestic cases. At this point, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason’s main worry is the possibility of an infected passenger opting out of the border test, disobeying quarantine regulations and starting a new wave of infections.  His worries are exacerbated by infection rates soaring in countries around us and new variants of SARS-CoV-2 possibly being more infectious than previous ones, as in the UK and South Africa.

Authorities have found that not everyone opting for the 14-day quarantine were adhering to quarantine regulations so, in order to minimise the risk of that happening, border test fees were dropped in December. While the number of people opting out of the tests has dropped, it was not enough to significantly lower the number of people opting for the 14-day quarantine. Þórólfur recently suggested that either the border tests be made mandatory or that people who opt for the 14-day quarantine be made to quarantine at government-run quarantine hotels. The Ministry of Health was unsure if they had the legal authority to issue such regulations but Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir has now decided to issue regulations making border tests and a second test following a 5-day quarantine mandatory.

When asked why the ministry now believed they had the legal authority to issue the regulations, Svandís told RÚV “ What changed was that we need to face the fact that the situation is serious and in light of that seriousness, my ministry believes this regulation has a legal basis. A bill to amend epidemic legislation is currently being discussed in Parliament and I hope that will be completed soon.” She called the regulations changes an emergency measure as the pressure is rising along with the number of positive border tests.

Arriving passengers will still be able to present valid certificates that they’ve already contracted and recovered from the virus to be exempt from tests and quarantine. The same will apply for arriving passengers who can present a valid certificate of vaccination. In exceptional cases, passengers providing valid medical concerns will also be able to choose a 14-day quarantine over testing.

After May 1, the government intends to take careful steps to ease restrictions at the border, depending on the state of the pandemic at passengers’ departure location.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Relaxed Restrictions Are Not Invitation to Let Loose, Say Authorities

rögnvaldur ólafsson

Though domestic restrictions were relaxed in Iceland yesterday, the country’s authorities have emphasised to the public that the changes are not an invitation to throw parties. In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson stated that although Iceland has had success in containing the pandemic locally, it takes very little for another wave to start. Authorities continue to examine possibilities for tightening border restrictions to protect domestic success in containing the pandemic.

Obstacles to Tightening Border Regulations

At the briefing, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his continued concern at the rising rates of COVID-19 infection being detected at the Icelandic border. While a few weeks ago, below one per cent of travellers were testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now the daily figure is usually above one per cent and some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive, Þórólfur stated.

Icelandic authorities are concerned that the so-called British strain of SARS-CoV-2, considered more infectious than previous strains, could cause another local wave of infection. So far, 37 have been diagnosed with that strain in Iceland, of which 33 were arriving travellers. The remaining 4 had close ties to those travellers.

Triple Testing a Possibility

Though the British strain has not spread broadly into the community, the Chief Epidemiologist had proposed tightening border and quarantine restrictions, but his recommendations, including mandatory border testing, were met by legal obstacles. He has now recommended that arriving travellers be required to present PCR test results no older than 48 hours before their arrival, in addition to the current quarantine and/or testing required once in Iceland. The Health Ministry is currently reviewing that possibility.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Sigurgeir Sigmundsson, Chief Superintendent of Keflavík Airport Police. Icelandic authorities have been investigating ways to tighten pandemic restrictions at the border.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases (2 in quarantine), and 4 at the border. Total active cases: 169. 19 are in hospital due to COVID-19 and none in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur opens by saying “we are now in unique circumstances in Iceland in that we can relax restrictions, that is not the reality in the countries around us.” Our success is due to our solidarity, but this isn’t over, Rögnvaldur continues. There are still infections in the community and very little is needed to trigger a new wave. Even though we’re relaxing restrictions, it is not meant to encourage people to gather in groups and use the additional slack to the fullest. We’re also not intending to encourage people to travel between regions, even though ski slopes are reopening. If we can’t stay focused on preventing infections, we’ll simply have to tighten restrictions again, Rögnvaldur says.

Þórólfur takes over to go over the numbers. One person has been admitted to hospital with an active infection [all others in hospital due to COVID-19 are recovering and no longer have active infections]. Few cases are being caught outside of quarantine, which is good, but we need to stay alert, Þórólfur says.

Þórólfur: it worries me how many active cases are being caught at the border. Even though our system of double testing with a 5-day quarantine has been working well, there’s still a risk of infections crossing the border. A few weeks ago, the daily percentage of positive border tests was well below one percent but now it’s usually above one percent, some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive.

I had suggested to the Ministry of Health that border tests be made mandatory and the option of a 14-day quarantine be eliminated, or, if that was not possible that people be required to spend their 14-day quarantine at a quarantine hotel. The Ministry has determined that they do not have the legal authority to instate those regulations, so instead I have suggested that we require all travellers coming to Iceland to present a certificate of a negative PCR test administered no more than 48 hours prior to arrival. Travellers would still be required to undergo either 14-day quarantine or 5-day quarantine and double testing.

With this measure, the risk of cases crossing the borders and entering the community would be minimised further, and our continued domestic success protected, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur is waiting for the Ministry’s response to this recommendation of additional testing for travellers before arrival to Iceland.

The Moderna vaccinations yesterday were successful and next week, 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive so we can continue vaccinating priority groups. Next week, those who received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in December will receive their second dose.

Sigurgeir takes over and begins by going over the changes to border regulations since the beginning of last year due to the pandemic. Sigurgeir sends his compliments to the officers working to implement government regulations, for their hard work and for often putting themselves at risk of infection. He notes that although some have claimed otherwise, Iceland has never fully closed its borders as many other countries have done. Travel from certain countries is, however, restricted.

The rules at the border have remained unchanged since August 19, with a double test and 5-day quarantine that has proved its effectiveness, or the option of a 14-day quarantine. Sigurgeir mentions that the latest changes at the border pertain to Brexit and its challenges. Sigurgeir states that the last year, “we have learned a lot, worked hard and unity has helped us move forward.”

Sigurgeir has three announcements. First, he reminds locals that they are not permitted to pick arriving travellers up at the airport. Travellers may take taxis or the airport bus, which are governed by strict preventative and disinfection regulations. [Travellers may also drive their own car which has been parked at the airport or rent a car.]

The second announcement is for employers receiving workers from abroad. Even though border officials are very clear with their instructions, there seems to be some difficulty understanding that workers need to complete quarantine before starting work. Sigurgeir encourages employers to shoulder their social responsibility and do their best in ensuring workers arriving from abroad complete quarantine according to regulations.

The third notice is regarding travellers who choose 14-day quarantine with no testing. Border officials have convinced around 210 arriving travellers to undergo double testing instead of 14-day quarantine and many infections were detected in that group. Around 40 arriving travellers who initially refused testing were convinced to undergo border testing when it was paid for. There were over 10 infections detected in that group.

Sigurgeir says police have supported the Chief Epidemiologist’s recommendations to implement stricter regulations at the border, but the legal framework does not support them. He calls for legislation to be updated to fix this. Sigurgeir also calls for clearer regulation on how police can respond to those who refuse to comply with testing or quarantine regulations.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about the PCR test certificates and their safety and efficacy. He states that he can not certify 100% safety but it’s a way to keep infections out since his other recommendations weren’t supported by law.

Þórólfur is asked about two infections that were recently diagnosed at the National Hospital. He adds that one infection was old and no longer contagious and that you can never fully eliminate the possibility of infection, simply minimise risk. Will you be rethinking vaccine priority groups on account of the recent infections at the hospital? No, I don’t think so, if we did, we’d have to vaccinate all healthcare workers before we vaccinate high-risk groups, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur has nothing to add on Pfizer negotiations and the possibility of a mass vaccination study in Iceland and has no details to disclose on negotiations with other vaccine producers.

At the last briefing, people were discouraged from unnecessary travel. Sigurgeir believes that locals are not going on unnecessary trips abroad though some locals went abroad for the holidays and are not returning home. Þórólfur points out that there is more information on vaccination and priority groups on the official government website for COVID-19.

Of course, there will be disagreements on who should be vaccinated first, says Þórólfur, stemming from the fact that there are currently not enough vaccines to inoculate everyone at once. Þórólfur asks the public to consider whether they genuinely want older people to be pushed further down the list for vaccination. That is unavoidable if other groups are prioritised.

Þórólfur is asked about a case of severe allergic reaction to one Moderna vaccine administered yesterday. He states that this is the first one they’ve heard of domestically even though they’ve heard news of such cases in other countries. Health authorities are aware of the possibility of allergic reactions, which is why everyone who receives the injection in Iceland is monitored for 20 minutes afterwards.

Rögnvaldur ends the meeting by reminding the public that even though authorities have relaxed domestic restrictions, they are not encouraging gatherings. This is not an excuse to throw a party. We’re all in this together.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities next briefing on Monday, January 18, at 11.03am.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Domestic Regulations Relaxed Today

skiing ski lift Iceland

Updated COVID-19 regulations take effect in Iceland today, raising the gathering limit from 10 to 20 people and allowing gyms and skiing grounds to reopen. The new regulations are set to remain in effect until February 17. Icelandic authorities are investigating whether stricter border regulations such as mandatory testing for arriving passengers are supported by Icelandic law.

While the COVID-19 pandemic grows in most of its neighbouring countries, Iceland has managed to keep domestic case numbers at a minimum. Total active cases have hovered around 150 for several weeks and Iceland currently has the lowest incidence rate of all countries reported on by the European Centre for Disease Control. In a briefing on Monday, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated it was time to relax domestic restrictions, while expressing concern at the risk presented by the high number of cases diagnosed at the borders.

Changes to Domestic Restrictions

As of today, the national gathering limit is 20, up from a record low of 10 which has been in effect since October 31. In addition, various activities and events have been granted exceptions to this general gathering limit. Gyms are permitted to reopen at 50% capacity with certain restrictions in place. Skiing grounds may also reopen. Athletic activities for adults and children are also permitted with a maximum of 50 participants and with certain restrictions in place. Athletic competitions are also permitted without a live audience.

In performing arts, up to 50 people may rehearse and perform together for up to 100 adults and 100 children in the audience. Audience members must have assigned seating and wear masks, and no intermissions are permitted during performances. Performers are also required to wear masks whenever possible.

Funerals are also excepted from the national gathering limit and may have up to 100 guests present (children born 2005 or later are not counted within this limit). Masks are mandatory. Funeral receptions may not host more than 20 people, however.

Mask use remains mandatory in shops, on public transport, and in all situations where two-metre distancing cannot be maintained. The two-metre social distancing rule also remains in effect. Bars and clubs remain closed.

Changes to Border Restrictions

One change to border restrictions also took effect today: children returning to the country from abroad are now required to quarantine along with their parents or guardians. Children were previously not required to do so, even while residing with others in travel quarantine. Children born in 2005 or later remain exempt from border testing, barring exceptional circumstances.

All travellers entering Iceland may choose between 14-day quarantine without testing, or a border test, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test. While the vast majority of travellers opt for double testing, there have been indications of individuals in 14-day quarantine breaching regulations. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has expressed concern that travellers arriving from abroad could spread the virus into the community, leading to a surge in domestic cases.

As a result, Icelandic authorities are considering making border testing mandatory for all travellers, or requiring those who refuse testing to serve their 14-day quarantine at government-run facilities. It remains unclear, however, whether Icelandic law supports such regulations. Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir has stated that a conclusion on the matter will be reached by the end of the week.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Strict Requirements for Recovery Certificates at Border

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Since last Thursday, travellers arriving in Iceland from abroad have been able to eschew quarantine and testing by presenting certificates proving COVID-19 recovery. RÚV reports that not all arriving passengers have the strict requirements straight, however. Of 14 certificates presented by travellers last Thursday, two were rejected, while five of the ten certificates presented by travellers on Friday were rejected.

All travellers arriving in Iceland are required to undergo 14-day quarantine; or testing at the airport, five-day quarantine, and a second, follow-up test. Since Thursday, passengers who present an official certificate proving they have recovered from COVID-19 are exempted from testing and quarantine upon arrival. The requirements for the certificate are quite specific, however.

Only Certificates from EEA/EFTA Area Accepted

According to the Directorate of Health, border officials will accept both positive PCR-test results for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 that are older than 14 days, as well as a certificate showing presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 measured by ELISA serologic assay. Only certificates including documented results from a laboratory within the EEA/EFTA-area or a confirmation from the Chief Epidemiologist in Iceland will be accepted and all certificates must be in English, Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. Clinical diagnoses are not deemed valid.

Certificates may be in paper or electronic format and will be evaluated by border control staff. If staff are unsure of the validity of a certificate, they will consult a healthcare worker. The final decision is at the discretion of the Chief Epidemiologist. If a passenger presents a document that is deemed invalid, the passenger must undergo 14-day quarantine or double testing with 5-day quarantine, as other passengers. Certificates have been rejected in recent days for differing reasons, including that they were not in one of the accepted languages, they were issued outside the EEA/EFTA, or they indicated a negative test result but not a positive COVID-19 test result followed by recovery.

Complete information on certificate requirements is available on the website of Iceland’s Directorate of Health.

Icelanders Come Home for the Holidays

An increasing number of travellers is entering Iceland these days, mostly Icelanders returning home for the holidays. December 18 and 19 are expected to be the busiest travel days as far as arrivals to Iceland are concerned. Authorities have stated that December 18 is the last possible day to arrive in Iceland if travellers wish to be out of quarantine by Christmas Eve.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Arrive by December 18 to Avoid Christmas in Quarantine

As Iceland’s domestic COVID-19 cases dwindle, its Chief Epidemiologist says maintaining vigilance at the border is crucial to avoiding a new local outbreak. At a briefing in Reykjavík today, authorities went over both border regulations – set to remain the same until at least February 1 – and domestic restrictions, which will likely be loosened minimally on December 2.

Iceland’s reported three domestic cases yesterday, two of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. The number of active cases is currently 198 and has been steadily dropping since mid-October. Iceland currently has the lowest COVID-19 incidence rate in all of Europe. Strain on the healthcare system is decreasing, and Akureyri Hospital in North Iceland has discharged all COVID-19 patients.

Guidelines for Christmas Parties Forthcoming

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason said he would be submitting his recommendations for updated restrictions sometime around the weekend. The new restrictions would take effect on December 2 and likely remain unchanged until the end of the year, according to Þórólfur.

At today’s briefing, authorities celebrated Icelanders’ success in containing the current wave of infections but emphasised the need to stay alert and continue practising personal preventative measures. Guidelines on infection prevention for holiday gatherings will be released later this week, Þórólfur stated. Director of Civil Protection Víðir reminded those returning to Iceland from abroad to arrive in the country by December 18 in order to be out of quarantine by Christmas.

Border Testing Remains Crucial

Iceland’s current wave of infection was largely brought about by one strain of the virus that arrived in the country in mid-August. Recently, however, a few new strains of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged. Most of these have been traced to border cases, which have caused small group outbreaks. The origin of one of the strains has not yet been discovered.

Though he was not particularly concerned about these small outbreaks, Þórólfur stressed the importance of monitoring people who test positive at the border closely and making sure they are well informed. Testing at the border has been made free of charge in December and January in an effort to encourage travellers to opt for testing rather than 14-day quarantine.

Iceland Review live-tweets Icelandic authorities’ information briefings on Mondays and Thursdays at 11.03am UTC.