Flu Epidemic Likely Following Decline in COVID Cases

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason believes that the waning COVID-19 pandemic is slowly being replaced by an influenza epidemic. The health authorities encourage individuals with underlying conditions to receive flu shots.

Brynjar Níelsson gets the flu

Last week, Brynjar Níelsson, Assistant to the Minister of Justice, published an essay on the subject of “pushy people” on his Facebook page.

While the former MP’s meditations were mildly interesting, the disclaimer that accompanied his post was even more noteworthy.

“I am extremely sick with the flu and nearly delirious,” Brynjar wrote (ensuring that any controversial statements could be chalked up to the delirious effects of the flu).

… but Brynjar Níelsson isn’t the only one who’s been suffering.

Up to 3,000 visits daily

In an interview with the radio programme Reykjavík síðdegis on Wednesday, Óskar Reykdalsson – Director of Capital Area Health Clinics – observed that the annual flu appeared to be “circulating among the populace in full force.”

Óskar estimated that up to 3,000 people visit capital-area clinics every day, complaining of common-cold symptoms, fever, and a cough.

Among those who have had reason to complain is singer Heiðar Örn Kristjánsson (who competed with Pollapönk in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest) whose upcoming gig at Gamli Enski in Hafnarfjörður was cancelled for this very reason.

“Heiðar Örn has the flu and has lost his voice,” Gamli Enski announced on its FB page in early March. “In light of this, DJ Drinkalot will be filling in.”

If only Heiðar Örn had taken preventive action …

Flu shots are sensible

The health authorities in Iceland imported 95,000 doses of flu vaccine last year, and an estimated 68,000 individuals have been vaccinated since last fall. There is still plenty of vaccine available.

“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” Óskar Reykdalsson stated in his interview with Reykjavík síðdegis, “so long as you haven’t been exposed to the flu.”

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason made the same point in an interview with RÚV this morning, where he encouraged everyone to get their flu shots. “Especially those with underlying conditions.”

“We’ve also been encouraging doctors to treat people with underlying conditions as quickly as possible in the event that they become sick. That undoubtedly helps prevent serious illness.”

Social restrictions to blame

The reason why the influenza epidemic is so forceful this year owes to the social restrictions imposed to curb the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.

According to Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, these restrictions prevented common annual bugs from spreading.

“So we can expect a significant circulation of these bugs now, because the flu hasn’t been spreading for the past two years,” Þórólfur remarked this morning. “This usually means that immune systems are much weaker than they otherwise would be.”

“What’s happening now is what I suggested could happen, that is, that we’re getting an extensive influenza epidemic,” Þórólfur continued. “We don’t know how extensive it will be, or how serious, because it’s just beginning.”

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.

Long Waiting List for Emergency Care

Emergency room

The National Hospital’s emergency ward operated at level three alert this weekend due to lack of space, RÚV reports. The waiting list for admission was 30 patients long, in part due to an influenza outbreak in the hospital. Twenty-seven patients at the hospital have come down with the flu, 14 of them just last week.

Chief Physician Jón Magnús Kristjánsson says the waiting list for emergency care was unusually long this weekend. “There was no single thing that explained the situation over the weekend, but the flu is in full swing which was a part of the situation,” he stated. Patients with influenza in some cases require hospitalisation for weeks.

Jón Magnús pointed out that such conditions could easily create a dangerous environment. “It’s always more difficult to fully ensure good service and safety for patients under these conditions,” he stated, adding that extra staff had been called out in response to the situation.

The hospital usually operates at level two alert. At level three, all the hospital’s departments are activated and admit more patients than otherwise. “What needs to be done to prevent such a state of affairs is to provide adequate resources for elderly people who have completed their hospital treatment and to ensure adequate staffing of nurses and medical staff at the hospital’s inpatient ward,” Jón Magnús explained. While there is a plan to increase the number of hospital beds in the Reykjavík capital area over the next few years, he said, “there is nothing that will solve this in the short term.”