COVID-19 in Iceland: Chief Epidemiologist Rebuffs Herd Immunity Approach

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

No country in the world is even close to achieving herd immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated in a public briefing this morning. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination” to see that Iceland’s healthcare system would be “completely overwhelmed” if social restrictions were lifted and the virus had the potential to spread widely, Þórólfur Guðnason stated. After successfully containing the first wave of COVID-19 last spring, Iceland recently reimposed harsh restrictions due to a spike in case numbers. Strain on the National University Hospital is increasing, but it should be able to cope, according to the worst projections for this wave.

Strain on Hospital Increasing

Iceland has reported between 80-100 new cases per day for the last three days and stands at a total of 846 COVID-19 cases. Twenty-three individuals are in hospital and 3 of them in intensive care, all three on ventilators. At today’s briefing, Páll Matthíasson, Director of the National University Hospital, stated that the number was expected to increase, but according to current projections, the hospital should be able to manage the load.

The hospital has undergone reorganising to manage the increased strain caused by the pandemic. Patients with COVID-19 are housed at two locations in the capital area to spread the workload. The most pressing issue is to find beds in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities in order to relocate other patients away from the hospital and free up resources.

Authorities have been hiring from a medical staff reserve force, which currently has 255 specialists registered. Medically trained professionals were urged to sign up to the list.

Solidarity is the Best Defence

At the briefing, both Þórólfur and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson emphasised the importance of solidarity in containing the local pandemic. Asked if he believed current measures would be enough to get case numbers to begin curving downward, Þórólfur stated: “I believe so, if people stick together and follow the rules.” Víðir reviewed recent recommendations issued by the Office of the National Police Commissioner, including staying home as much as possible and cancelling or postponing group gatherings and events over the next two weeks. “We must stand together,” Víðir stated. “It’s the only way out of this.”

Herd Immunity Not a Viable Goal

Reporters questioned the panel on perceived disagreement between MPs regarding restrictions. Víðir and Þórólfur both underlined that although discussion occurs, when decisions are made there is full solidarity within the government and between the government and health authorities.

Asked about the possibility of global herd immunity, Þórólfur stated that all countries were far from achieving it. Even in Sweden, which is often referenced in connection with the concept due to its relaxed approach to managing the pandemic, only around 10% have developed antibodies to the virus.

In Iceland, only 1-2% of the population have antibodies at this time. At least 60% would need to contract SARS-CoV-2 for immunity to develop, and, Þórólfur stated, “it doesn’t take a lot of imagination” to understand how that would lead to the healthcare system being “completely overwhelmed,” considering the strain it is currently experiencing with under 1,000 cases.

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ COVID-19 briefings in English on our Twitter page, below. The next scheduled briefing is on Monday, October 12 at 11.00am UTC.

COVID-19 in Iceland: National Hospital Capacity Key to Third Wave Response

National University Hospital Páll Matthíasson

The National University Hospital can handle the projected strain of the current wave of infections, though some reorganisation will be necessary, according to its Director Páll Matthíasson. Páll discussed the hospital’s strengths and weaknesses in tackling the current uptick in COVID-19 hospitalisations at a briefing in Reykjavík this afternoon. Iceland’s current wave of infection will rise slower, fall slower, and last longer than its first wave last spring, says Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.

Spread of Infection Likely Slowing

Þórólfur stated that the number of daily infections in Iceland and the number of those diagnosed outside of quarantine both appear to be dropping, though slower than expected. Exponential growth of the local pandemic had been successfully avoided, and thus he believes it is unnecessary to impose harsher restrictions, though the situation is being re-evaluated on a regular basis. On the other hand, he stated it was likely that restrictions would be maintained over the coming months as “this virus is not going anywhere.”

Hospital Needs to Free Up Resources

The Chief Epidemiologist’s Office and the National University Hospital have been in communication regarding the challenges the hospital faces in tackling the current wave of COVID-19 infection. Páll stated that while the hospital has many strengths, including well-trained staff and new knowledge and experience in treating COVID patients, it needs to decrease pressure in other wards of the hospital in order to free up resources to deal with the pandemic. The hospital also needs to ensure it is flexible in its organisation and its reserve force of healthcare staff are ready to respond to emergencies. Space and staffing are the biggest challenges currently facing the institution.

Nursing Homes in Good Shape

Most nursing homes and disabled care homes in Iceland are in good shape, according to Þórólfur, and measures implemented to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have been largely successful. He added that there have been few severe COVID-19 cases among the elderly and at-risk in this wave of infection.

Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson ended the briefing by reminding the public of their personal responsibility in tackling the pandemic. “It is normal to be tired and bored of COVID and want our normal lives back. But we need to stick together to protect those most vulnerable.”

Iceland Review live-tweets Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 briefings.