Nine Infected with Monkeypox, Vaccine En Route from Denmark

Nine people had been diagnosed with monkeypox in Iceland as of last week. RÚV reports that Iceland has still not received its own shipment of the monkeypox vaccine and so will be borrowing vaccines from Denmark in the meantime.

In an interview on Wednesday, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason said there was no indication that the monkeypox epidemic is on the decline. Around 14,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease worldwide, 8,000 of whom are in the European Union and 2,000 of whom are in the UK.

“The figures are going up. There’s nothing that indicates that this on the decline. So every country is just preparing to offer vaccination and even antivirals when they get them,” said Þórólfur.

Þórólfur added that Iceland is receiving a loan of 40 vaccine doses from Denmark, as the country  is still awaiting its vaccine allotment from the European Union.

“It’s not clear when they will arrive,” said Þórólfur, “but it shouldn’t be long now.”

Imposing COVID Restrictions Now Would Have Limited Effect, Chief Epidemiologist Says

Chief Epidemiologist Iceland Þórólfur Guðnason

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason told Kjarninn that imposing COVID-19 restrictions in Iceland now would have limited effect on the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The currently dominant variant, BA.5, is more contagious than the omicron variant, and a newer variant that is emerging elsewhere in the world, BA.2.75, appears to be still more contagious. Very strict measures would be needed to prevent the spread of these varieties, and their success would be far from guaranteed.

Most re-infections among those who caught the virus early

COVID reinfections in Iceland are by far most common among those who were infected early in the pandemic: before the Omicron variant became widespread. The reinfection rate among people who were infected with the Omicron variant is under 1%. Þórólfur says this could change, however, with the arrival of new variants that could be evading previous immunity. The Chief Epidemiologist noted that in almost all cases, reinfections have been milder than the initial infection.

The Chief Epidemiologist observed that likely neither the Icelandic public nor the government is likely to welcome restrictions at this time, but luckily the COVID-19 situation in Iceland has been relatively stable. Around 30 people in Iceland are in hospital due to a COVID-19 infection, most infected for the first time, and one or two of them in the ICU.

Þórólfur expressed his hope that immunity against COVID-19 would continue to build up and infection rates and rates of serious illness would begin to decrease soon. Iceland’s herd immunity is already very high, he added, and fourth doses are not recommended except for at-risk groups.

Hospital Reinstates Mask Requirements Due to Increase in COVID Cases

mask use social distancing

The spread of COVID-19 has increased in the past few days, as around 200 people test positive for Covid daily. The number of people with COVID Is likely a lot higher as many test positive at home, don’t get their results confirmed with the healthcare clinics, and are not counted in the healthcare system’s official numbers. The Directorate of Health stated that most new infections are in people who have not had covid, while people who have already had COVID and are infected again amount to under 10% of cases.

Just under 30 people are hospitalised in the National Hospital with COVID-19, and two are in ICU, one of which requires a ventilator. Most hospitalised people are over 70, but severe illness is most common in people who have had three or fewer vaccinations.

The public, especially those over 80 years old, is encouraged to keep up personal infection preventions and get vaccinated if they haven’t already had their shot. People over 80 and those living in nursing homes are encouraged to receive their second booster shot.

The National Hospital is reinstating its mask requirements and limiting the number of visitors due to the increase in new COVID cases. All guests and staff at the hospital are required to wear masks, and visiting hours are limited to one visitor for one hour per patient.

In an interview with RÚV, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur GUðnason stated that authorities will not be responding to the increase in infections by reinstating infection prevention restrictions just yet. “It’s crystal clear that the nation is not inclined to reinstate restrictions. It’s the government that has the final say in these matters,” Þórólfur told RÚV.

Increase in COVID Admissions, But Infections Much Milder

Iceland National Hospital COVID-19

As many as 150 new cases of COVID-19 are being diagnosed every day in Iceland and the number of patients admitted to the hospital for COVID infection is also rising incrementally, RÚV reports. While there are a considerable number infections all throughout Iceland, however, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says that fortunately, these cases are much, much milder amongst those who are vaccinated.

Fortunate as well, says Þórólfur, is that the stress on Iceland’s health system is not nearly what it was at the height of the pandemic, when there were 88 patients in the COVID ward at once. There were only two people in Landspítali’s COVID ward at the start of May, which increased to nine patients on Thursday, and 16 on Friday. Admissions are mostly elderly patients and those with underlying conditions, but as the infections are not as acute, none of those currently in the hospital are on ventilators.

“There’s no doubt about it, of course we would have liked for the vaccine to prevent infection,” Þórólfur remarked. “It doesn’t do that, but what it does do, first and foremost, is prevent serious illness. If we didn’t have this widespread vaccination, particularly amongst older age groups, I think we’d have much worse infections and more people in the hospital.”

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Resigns

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Chief Epidemiologist of Iceland Þórólfur Guðnason has sent in his resignation. The Directorate of Health announced the decision on its website this morning. Þórólfur is leaving the job both for personal and professional reasons.

According to the Directorate of Health, the main reason for Þórólfur’s resignation is that the current wave of COVID-19 infection has mostly subsided and a new chapter is beginning in the Chief Epidemiologist’s role. “This new chapter includes, among other things, a review of the response to the COVID pandemic with the aim of improving response to future pandemics,” the notice from the Directorate states. The Chief Epidemiologist will also be shifting focus back to the routine projects that were largely put on hold due to the pandemic.

Pandemic far from over

Led by Þórólfur, Iceland’s response to COVID-19 received global attention early in the pandemic. With a focus on testing, tracing, and isolating cases, the country managed to contain the first wave with relatively few infections and deaths – and without ever instituting a total lockdown or closing schools.

“While Iceland is currently in a good place in the COVID pandemic, it is far from over globally and while such is the case, it will be necessary to closely monitor the emergence of new variants of the virus and how well and for how long the immunity that individuals have achieved will last,” the notice on Þórólfur’s resignation states.

Another reason for Þórólfur’s resignation is that he turns 70 next year: the age at which the Chief Epidemiologist is required by law to leave the position. His resignation will take effect September 1.

Þórólfur recently reflected on his work throughout the pandemic in an interview with Iceland Review.

 

 

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.

COVID-19 in Iceland: 80+ Offered Fourth Dose

bólusetning mass vaccination Laugardalshöll

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has decided to offer a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine to those 80 years of age and older, as well as all residents of nursing homes, Vísir reports. The decision is based on data from abroad that show COVID infection among older demographics can lead to serious illness even after three doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Þórólfur expects infection rates to remain low throughout the summer but points out that there is still uncertainty about how long immunity from vaccines and previous COVID-19 illness lasts.

“There is data emerging both from across the pond and from Europe that infections among these individuals that have received three doses can be very serious, much more serious and worse than among younger people that have received three doses,” Þórólfur stated. “There are recommendations from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency to offer these people a fourth dose and it’s on that basis that we are doing so.”

Chronically ill encouraged to receive fourth dose

Previously, the Chief Epidemiologist has only recommended fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine to those who are chronically ill. Þórólfur says, however, that participation among the group has been lower than hoped when it comes to the fourth shot. The general population is still not being offered a fourth dose in Iceland. Currently, 81% of eligible residents in Iceland are fully vaccinated, and around 56% of the total population have received a third dose.

Unknown how long immunity lasts

Iceland is currently reporting 100-200 new COVID-19 cases per day, but authorities believe the true number to be higher. Seventeen are currently in hospital with COVID-19 infection. Þórólfur says he expects infection rates to remain low throughout the summer, but the coming autumn and winter are less certain, both because COVID-19 has shown itself to be seasonal and because we still do not know how long immunity provided by vaccines or by COVID-19 infection lasts.

“There are viruses that ramp up in the fall and winter time and I think it’s fairly likely we will have a good period this summer. Then it’s a question of what will happen in the fall. We just have to wait and see. I’m not predicting anything bad, necessarily, but we have to just monitor the situation closely.”

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.”

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.”

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.