COVID May Be a Factor in Elevated Number of Deaths in Early 2022

Chief Epidemiologist Iceland Þórólfur Guðnason

Statistics Iceland reported an unusually high number of deaths in the first quarter: 760 in total, or 150 more than during the same period last year. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says COVID-19 could be a factor. He says, however, that the numbers much be considered in context.

When looking at the numbers of monthly deaths between 2012 and 2019 on one hand, and 2020 and 2022 on the other, it comes to light that there was an increase in deaths among those 70 and older in March, but not in February. The wave of omicron infection peaked in March, as Þórólfur told RÚV. “As we have pointed out before, it seems that COVID has been an influencing factor in the deaths of many senior citizens and people with underlying illness.”

COVID restrictions likely prevented senior deaths

Þórólfur adds that it is difficult to make conclusions about COVID deaths from these numbers alone, but it is interesting to note that in the middle of 2020 and at the start and end of 2021, the number of deaths among those 70 and older was unusually low. “I think it is very likely that the measures that were in effect in 2020 and 2021 protected this age group well,” Þórólfur stated.

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.