Lower Mortality Rate in Latest COVID-19 Wave

landspítali hospital

COVID-19 continues to spread through the community, but a closer look at the data presents a silver lining to the latest wave. While far more Icelanders diagnosed with the coronavirus have died in recent months, the mortality rate is actually lower than in prior waves.

During earlier waves of the pandemic, roughly 0.5 percent of those diagnosed with COVID-19 succumbed to the virus. However, since the Delta variant arrived in the country in the summer of 2021 the mortality rate dropped to 0.03 or 0.04 percent, a 10 or 15 percent decrease, RÚV reports.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason attributes the lower mortality rate to high uptake of vaccinations in the country.

Over the course of the pandemic, 93 deaths have been associated with COVID-19 infection, 56 of which have occurred this year.

The country appears to have reached the peak of the latest wave, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, though an average of 1,500 new cases are being diagnosed daily through PCR and rapid testing.

Hospitals examining their alert levels

Landspítali’s Epidemic Committee is looking at how the hospital can scale back its alert level in a safe manner after weeks of operating at an emergency alert level, RÚV reports.

There are 72 patients currently in hospital with COVID-19, 64 of whom are in isolation and four are on respirators. Six children are currently being hospitalised for COVID-19.

A lot of illness going around

Despite COVID-19 cases trending in the right direction, there is a lot of illness circulating in the community, Óskar Reykdalsson, director of the capital area health care centres, told RÚV.

In addition to the coronavirus, influenza is spreading rapidly. Thanks to health measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, less flu had been spreading in Iceland over the past two years.

Óskar said that it is typical that the flu is more widespread after years of lower instances. Health facilities ordered more influenza vaccine this year in anticipation of higher numbers, but demand hasn’t met supply.

“I was actually quite surprised that it was not just all used up and finished,” Óskar told Channel 2 radio. “95,000 doses were ordered for the country and 67,000 doses have been used.”

Asked whether people would be able to distinguish between having COVID-19 or influenza, Óskar said that there were differences between the pace of the diseases. With influenza, people suddenly get a high fever and headache and then the cold creeps in. With COVID-19, on the other hand, symptoms start rather mildly but then the disease grows.

Fewer Deaths Than Expected Despite Widespread Infections

Kamilla Jósefsdóttir

More people have died from COVID-19 during the first three months of 2022 than during the entirety of 2020 and 2021, Fréttablaðið reports. Ninety-one deaths have been reported from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in Iceland, 54 of which occurred during the new year. The newest wave of the pandemic has, however, seen fewer deaths than expected. 

Thirty-seven deaths in 2020 and 2021

Twenty-nine individuals died from COVID-19 in 2020, according to a report from the Directorate of Health. By the end of 2021, eight more individuals had passed away from the disease, or a total of 37. Since the start of the new year, 54 COVID-related deaths have been reported.

“We count deaths that doctors report as being connected to COVID-19,” Kamilla Sigríður Jósefsdóttir, Deputy Chief Epidemiologist, noted in an interview with Fréttablaðið yesterday. “We’re unable to make a further distinction. If the death is believed to have originated from an entirely different cause, then it should not be reported.”

Fewer deaths than expected

The most recent wave of the pandemic – primarily attributed to the spread of the Omicron variant – has proven especially infectious (two weeks ago, it was estimated that 70% of Icelanders had already been infected); given the number of cases, however, there have been fewer deaths than expected as compared to previous waves of the pandemic.

With a spike in cases, many vulnerable individuals – the elderly and those with underlying conditions, for example – have become infected with the disease. In an interview with Viljinn on Monday, Kamilla maintained that most of those who died from COVID-19 recently – but not everyone – suffered from underlying conditions, which influences the seriousness of the illness.

“One of the reasons why social restrictions were lifted was that Omicron was causing less serious illness compared to earlier variants, which meant that there was less need for restrictions than before,” Kamilla stated. Despite the relative benignity of the Omicron variant, there is still ample reason to practice personal disease-prevention measures:

“Avoiding contact with vulnerable individuals if you’re symptomatic and/or using a mask when close contact is unavoidable and when conditions allow. Washing your hands – etc.,” Kamilla observed. 

Not comparable to flu season

When asked if the current wave of COVID-19 was comparable to the flu season, Kamilla replied that the death rate for COVID-19 was much higher. If such an analogy were to be made, then it should be compared with influenza pandemics, which are much more serious.

According to Kamilla, the mortality rate from COVID-19 during this most recent Omicron wave is nine times greater per 100,000 residents than the mortality rate during the annual flu season in the United States. It’s also 2.5 times higher than the mortality rate in the US during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

70% of Icelanders May Have Already Had COVID-19

COVID-19 briefing Iceland Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason wrote in his latest column on covid.is that he estimates the actual number of Icelanders who have been infected with the coronavirus to be as much as double the number of people formally diagnosed. That would mean that around 70% of Icelanders have had COVID-19.

Should that be the case, Iceland could reach the pandemic’s peak in the next few weeks, after which time diagnoses will start to drop, Þórólfur predicts.

COVID-19 is still a serious problem

In his column, Þórólfur reminds the public that COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly through the community, and though the number of tests being conducted is decreasing that doesn’t mean cases are dropping.

3,367 cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Iceland on Feb. 28 — 3,215 through rapid testing and 152 through PCR.

He also said the health care system is feeling the pressure.

“At Landspítali, about 10 individuals are admitted daily with or due to COVID-19, and slightly less are discharged,” Þórólfur wrote. “Today, 55 people are in hospital with/due to the disease, three of them in the intensive care unit, all on a ventilator.”

He says it is important that everyone realizes that COVID-19 is still a significant health issue in Iceland, despite official disease control measures being lifted. “Everyone is encouraged to continue to use individual disease control measures aimed at delaying the spread of COVID-19 and preventing uncontrollable strain on our healthcare system.”

No More COVID-19 Prevention Measures at Iceland’s Border

Keflavík Airport

Along with lifting COVID-19 social restrictions domestically, the government has also called off all disease-prevention measures at the border. There is no longer a requirement for a PCR test to board aircraft and no need to quarantine upon arrival, regardless of vaccination status.

Wholesale lifting of restrictions

Before today, all travellers arriving in Iceland were required to present a negative PCR or rapid antigen test administered no more than 72 hours before departure to Iceland (regardless of their vaccination status or whether they have previously contracted COVID-19). These restrictions no longer apply.

As per the authorities’ statements Wednesday, all COVID-19 measures at the Icelandic border were lifted at midnight – regardless of whether individuals are vaccinated or unvaccinated. (Visa requirements, of course, have not changed.)

As noted on Icelandair’s webpage: “All visitors are welcome, with no requirement for a PCR test to board aircraft, or testing or quarantine upon arrival. There is no longer a requirement to present a certificate of vaccination or of a prior COVID-19 infection.”

Travellers are, however, asked to keep in mind that the lifting of these restrictions does not mean that they cannot wear a mask. Travellers should also be aware that different rules apply for different airlines and countries.

Iceland Lifts All COVID-19 Restrictions

ramps downtown Reykjavík

All COVID-19 social restrictions have been lifted as of midnight today. Individuals who test positive for the coronavirus will no longer be required to quarantine, and no disease prevention measures will be in place at the border.

Two years of restrictions

Nearly two years after imposing the first social restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Icelandic authorities have lifted all limitations on public gatherings. Rapid tests will replace PCR tests, and individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to quarantine.

According to a statement by Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson on Wednesday, the decision to lift social restrictions was unanimous among ministers – and in line with the most recent memorandum of Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.

The memo noted that severe illness has not increased over the past few weeks – despite over 2,000 infections being recorded daily. Þórólfur believes that the best way to end the pandemic is widespread herd immunity against the virus (ca. 80% of the population is expected to have become infected by mid-March).

Approximately 110,000 individuals have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Iceland. Antibody testing suggests, however, that an equal number of people have already been infected without testing positive. Sixty one individuals have died from COVID-19 in Iceland since the start of the pandemic.

“We can truly rejoice at this turning-point, but I encourage people to be careful, to practice personal infection prevention measures, and not to interact with others if they notice symptoms,” the Minister of Health stated on Wednesday.

Bar-owners rejoice, despite poor weather

Among those who will be celebrating the lifting of restrictions are bar owners, who may now resume normal operations for the first time since July.

The nightlife in downtown Reykjavík is expected to be especially busy this weekend. The National University Hospital warns of an increased strain on its operations and encourages partygoers to exercise caution.

As noted by meteorologist Haraldur Ólafsson in an interview with Vísir, today’s forecast is less than ideal. An orange weather alert will be in effect for the capital area between 11 AM and 5 PM. Wind speed is expected to reach up to 25 m/s with sleet and rain. The storm will have mostly subsided by the evening.

Government to Introduce Plan to Ease Social Restrictions Today

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson

The government will meet this morning to discuss the Chief Epidemiologist’s new memorandum on the COVID-19 pandemic. After the meeting, the cabinet will hold a press conference to introduce its plan to ease restrictions. The press conference will take place at 11.30 AM at the Culture House in Reykjavík.

Ample reason for optimism

Less than 48 hours after significantly relaxing COVID-19 quarantine regulations, the government is expected to introduce a plan to begin easing social restrictions. The current restrictions – mandating a ten-person limit on social gatherings, in effect since January 15 – will expire on Wednesday, February 2.

In a speech before Parliament yesterday, Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson did not go into the details of the new plan but admitted that he was optimistic: “We are at a turning point, and there is ample reason to be optimistic, seeing as we’ve arrived at the point in this pandemic where we can begin easing restrictions,” Willum stated.

The easing of social restrictions is expected to lead to an increase in infections, as noted in a memorandum authored by Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and submitted to the Minister of Health on Monday; a record number of COVID-19 cases were recorded yesterday and Wednesday (nearly 1,600). Despite the rise in infections, however, hospitalisations have continued to decline, and the state of the hospitals has been better than the most optimistic models predicted. The National University Hospital has been in an emergency phase since December 28, owing mainly to the absence of quarantining staff.

Step-by-step

In an interview with RÚV, Sigríður Dóra Magnúsdóttir, director of patient care at capital area health centres, stressed that the manner in which restrictions were eased mattered: “I believe that we should ease restrictions in deliberate phases, one step at a time. In this way, we can observe changes incrementally. Removing all restrictions at once, will make it much more difficult to turn back if things go awry. We’ve tried that approach, and I don’t recommend it.”

As noted by Mbl.is, Willum has suggested that the government would take a cautious approach to easing restrictions.

A New Campaign of Booster Shots Launched Today at Laugardalshöll

Icelandic healthcare system

A new campaign of COVID-19 booster shots began this morning at the Laugardalshöll stadium. Everyone eligible will receive an invitation to accept an additional shot of the vaccine. The unvaccinated are encouraged to attend a so-called “open house” on Thursdays and Fridays.

A sharp rise in infections

In the wake of a sharp increase in infections – and following tighter social restrictions announced Thursday – a new campaign of COVID-19 booster shots began this morning for residents of the capital area at Laugardalshöll (individuals who had received the Janssen vaccine were offered booster shots in August).

The campaign’s first phase will last for approximately four weeks, that is, starting today and lasting ca. until December 8. As noted in Iceland Review last week, the health authorities expect to administer up to 10,000 booster shots per day and hope to offer all those who have been fully vaccinated a booster shot by March.

Those eligible will receive an invitation

The mRNA Pfizer vaccine will be administered at Laugardalshöll between 10 am and 3 pm today, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Everyone eligible to receive booster shots will receive an invitation; however, those who received a second dose of the initial vaccine six months ago may also show up to Laugardalshöll to receive a booster. Those who were jabbed during the first round of vaccinations this spring, individuals sixty years or older, or those suffering from underlying conditions will be given priority. (No vaccines will be adminstered on Suðurlandsbraut 34 on those days that shots are given in Laugardalshöll.)

According to the Capital Area Healthcare Centres’ website, six months must have elapsed between the second dose of the initial vaccine and a COVID-19 booster shot. Likewise, 14 days must have elapsed between influenza shots and booster shots. Those who have completed their initial round of vaccinations and have been infected with COVID-19 are to wait further instruction.

An open house for the unvaccinated on Thursday and Friday

Those who have yet to receive a COVID vaccination, or those who have yet to receive the second dose of the initial vaccine – or those who require a different type of vaccine – may show up at Laugardalshöll between 10 am and 3 pm on Thursdays and Fridays. The Pfizer mRNA vaccine will administered on both days. The AstraZeneca and Moderna will be offered on Thursdays and the Janssen vaccine on Fridays.

Yet to Submit a Proposal on Updated Social Restrictions

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Over the next two days, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason aims to submit a proposal on social restrictions to the Ministry of Health. Proposed changes to the regulations will not be presented to the public until after the weekend.

Current restrictions in effect until September 17

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason aims to submit a proposal on social restrictions regarding COVID-19 to Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir this weekend, RÚV reports. As there is no cabinet meeting scheduled for today, proposed changes to the regulations will not be presented to the public at this time.

The current restrictions, which, among other things, involve a public-gathering limit of 200 people, were adopted on August 28 and will be in effect until September 17.

Determined to ease restrictions

Earlier this week, Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated that it was clear that the government would ease restrictions on public gatherings. Nonetheless, Svandís remarked that she would await new proposals from the Chief Epidemiologist, which would then be discussed by the cabinet before any decisions were made.

After a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation, and Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Justice, stated that they wanted to take a step toward “normal life” as soon as possible.

Children to Receive First Jabs Today and Tomorrow

Vaccine

The vaccination of children between the ages of 12 and 15 began at the Laugardalshöll stadium in Reykjavík this morning. The authorities expect to immunize approximately 10,000 children over the next two days, Vísir reports.

“Everyone in agreement”

Children between the ages of 12 and 15 and who live in the Greater Reykjavík Area will receive jabs against COVID-19 at the Laugardalshöll stadium today and tomorrow. Rather than sending out invitations, the Capital Area Healthcare Centres (HH) have asked legal guardians to accompany their children to Laugardalshöll according to a designated schedule. On the HH website, parents are encouraged to discuss vaccinations with their children so that “everyone is in agreement” before arriving at the stadium. The children will receive the Pfizer vaccine.

Children from the abovementioned age group and who have already been infected with COVID-19 can receive one dose of the vaccine, that is if more than three months have passed since the infection. 7th graders, who turn 12 this fall, will be offered vaccines later this autumn.

Common side effects

As noted on the HH website, the most common side effects of the vaccine are pain on the injection site, tiredness, fever, headache, and muscle pain.

“As with other vaccines, the most common side effects are discomfort at the injection site and weakness/fatigue, fever and aches (headache or muscle aches and joint pain) for the first 24 hours after vaccination, sometimes for several days. Paracetamol or ibuprofen may be used in doses according to package leaflet for these side effects. There are also rare side effects with swelling in the pericardium (bag around the heart) or in the heart muscle itself, 2 to 3 weeks after vaccination, usually after the second dose and is more common in boys than girls. Although these side effects can be uncomfortable and even frightening, the condition usually disappears with rest and anti-inflammatory painkillers. If a child develops chest pain, talks about a strange heartbeat or seems short of breath when resting after the vaccination, a doctor should be consulted,” the website of the Capital Area Healthcare Centre reads.

Irregularities in the menstrual cycle

The HH website also addresses the possible connection between COVID-19 vaccinations and period changes:

“It is being investigated whether changes in the menstrual cycle, both spotting, small and heavy bleeding, are related to vaccination with this vaccine. Some girls between the ages of 12 and 15 have already started menstruation, while others have not. Not all girls at this age may be aware of any changes, as menstruation is usually irregular in the first year after it starts. Many also find it uncomfortable to talk about and won’t necessarily tell if something is different than (SIC) before. It is therefore important that they receive information that it is appropriate to discuss this and have the opportunity to do so, if not at home than (SIC) possibly with a school nurse or other healthcare professionals.”

Parents May No Longer Be Required to Isolate With Their Children

school children

The families of children who are required to self-isolate may forgo isolation themselves if they have not been in direct contact with the infected individual, according to a new proposal on quarantine regulations being considered by the government. The authorities hope to reduce future social restrictions as far as possible, although long-term measures in the fight against COVID have yet to be laid out.

Reduce the number of people self-isolating

Speaking to RÚV this afternoon, the Minister of Health revealed that the government hopes to loosen quarantine regulations, intending to reduce the number of people required to isolate in the event of an infection. Among the measures that will be implemented in this endeavour are rapid antigen tests. Furthermore, the families of children who are made to self-isolate will not be required to isolate if they have not been in direct contact with the infected individual.

“We’ve decided, following the proposals from the Chief Epidemiologist, to reevaluate our quarantine regulations with the hope of steering individuals who’ve been in direct contact with an infected person into isolation; however, whenever we’re dealing with the outer circles, with people who are further removed from the infected individual, then we’ll recommend, among other things, rapid antigen tests,” Svandís stated. “We’re also considering whether to allow families of children who are isolating to forgo self-isolation themselves.”

Uncertainty surrounding social restrictions in the future

Although a long-term pandemic plan has yet to be formalized, the government discussed the Chief Epidemiologist’s long-term measures to fight COVID-19 in its meeting this morning. “We’re discussing future plans,” Svandís stated. “We know that we need to temper the pandemic so that it does not jeopardize the healthcare system.” As has been the case in the past, the authorities will need to take into account the progress of the pandemic. “We can’t make precise decisions about the state of things six months or a year from now, but we can state that we hope to reduce restrictions as far as possible, with the caveat that we don’t put the healthcare system at risk.”