The pandemic is not over yet, Icelandic health authorities reminded locals at a COVID-19 briefing in Reykjavík today. Iceland’s active case numbers have fallen regularly in recent days and now sit at 106. Since January 6, at least half of new daily cases have been in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Nevertheless, authorities cautioned that the country is far from achieving herd immunity and until it does, infection prevention will be crucial for avoiding another wave of infection.
Vaccination against COVID-19 began on December 29 in Iceland. Authorities have now set up a regularly-updated page with statistics on the process. An English-language version is forthcoming. So far, 5,725 have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 480 have received both doses and are fully vaccinated. Authorities expressed their hope that vaccination could speed up in the coming months as manufacturers scale up production.
Read More: What’s the status of COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland?
Asked why Iceland could not acquire sufficient vaccines for its small population sooner, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated Icelanders were sitting at the same negotiation table as other countries in Europe and are receiving the same number of doses, proportional to population, as others.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special Guest: Sigríður Dóra Magnúsdóttir of capital area healthcare centres. Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases (2 in quarantine) and 2 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 106. 18 are in hospital due to COVID-19. Statistics about COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland are now also being updated regularly on the official government website. 5,725 have received their first dose while 480 have completed vaccination in Iceland.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur mentions the ongoing risk of avalanche in North Iceland, particularly Siglufjörður. Rögnvaldur also praises the media for their part in bringing information to the public throughout the pandemic. He mentions the new vaccination info website.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers. We’re still seeing relatively few infections domestically, especially outside quarantine. We are, however, still seeing some infections outside of quarantine, which means that the virus is still out there, something to keep in mind. The number of infections at the border fluctuates depending on the number of passengers and their place of departure, Þórólfur says.
I remind people that have started talking about relaxing restrictions further, that it takes a week or two to see the effect of changes to restrictions. It’s been just over a week since restrictions were relaxed.
Pfizer has updated their distribution schedule and for the next few weeks, we’ll receive fewer doses than originally stated. They intend to make up for it in March, meaning that by the end of March, we should have received the same amount of vaccine we were initially promised. We hope that AstraZeneca will receive its market authorisation soon and hope that vaccinations will go faster as time goes on but we can’t promise anything at this point, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur addresses the public discussion (and criticism) of vaccination priority groups. Authorities are aiming to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups first and be as fair as possible in vaccine distribution. Those who are the most likely to contract COVID-19, as well as those who are most likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19, have been prioritised. If we place others before them, we will push our most vulnerable further down the list, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur asks the public to refrain from contacting authorities with requests that they be added to priority groups, as the only result is an increased the workload for health authorities.
Sigríður Dóra takes over to discuss the vaccination process. The group currently being vaccinated is people receiving home care and next week, authorities will continue to vaccinate those over 70, starting with the oldest among them. This will all be announced when the time comes and those who are eligible for vaccination will be contacted electronically. The next groups to be vaccinated are senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions. Everyone who has been treated by a doctor for a relevant condition will be contacted for vaccinations. Healthcare centres don’t prioritise people manually rather it is done by an automated system based on patients’ registered conditions.
One thing regarding allergies: we’re working on guidelines for vaccinating people with a history of severe allergic reactions which will likely be issued today, says Sigríður. Sigríður: If we receive large amounts of the vaccine, we are prepared to start large-scale inoculation in co-operation with municipal authorities and the police. “We will get to everyone when it’s their turn, no one will be left out.” – Sigríður on vaccination in Iceland
When asked about changes to restrictions for at-risk groups in light of vaccination, Þórólfur states that nursing homes make their own rules but that in other parts of the community, vaccinations are still not widespread enough to relax restrictions. Asked whether increased vaccination will cause the public to let down their guard, Þórólfur says that locals have shown unity and solidarity so far. It would surprise him if that were to suddenly change, but authorities are prepared to act if it does.
Negotiations with Pfizer regarding a mass-vaccination study in Iceland are ongoing, nothing new to report from them, however, says Þórólfur. One of the reasons authorities want to perform this study with Pfizer is that it the threshold for herd immunity is still unknown. Though it’s hypothesised to be around 60-70%, experts do not yet know.
Lifting restrictions is not only dependent on vaccination but many factors, including the situation in the countries around us, Þórólfur states. Þórólfur states that they don’t have an exact distribution schedule from Pfizer after March and not much is known about the AstraZeneca distribution schedule. The Jansen vaccine is expected to get a market authorisation sometime in February but the distribution schedule is also unclear. Authorities expect that vaccines will arrive faster once production speeds up but at this point, they don’t know when or how much.
Rögnvaldur discusses increased monitoring of those crossing the border, including follow-ups to border tests, especially the second test following the five-day quarantine.
Reporter: Have Icelandic authorities attempted to negotiate directly with vaccine manufacturers other than Pfizer and why can’t we vaccinate such a small nation quicker than others? Negotiations with other vaccine manufacturers are ongoing but there’s nothing to report, says Þórólfur. We are sitting at the same negotiation table as other countries and receive the same amount of vaccines proportionally.
How long will the immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus last? We don’t know and that’s something to be researched, Þórólfur says. Will new strains require new vaccines? We don’t know and that’s something we have to be prepared for.
Individuals will now be able to receive a certificate of vaccination via Iceland’s online healthcare platform. Other types of certificates for travellers are in the works.
Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing. He reiterates that despite our recent success, the pandemic is not over yet. He reminds people to be on the lookout for symptoms and get tested if they experience symptoms. Even though the gathering limit is now 20 people, that does not mean you should regularly gather in groups of 20, Rögnvaldur adds. Wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a mask when needed. “This is still in our hands, thank you.”
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Monday, January 25 at 11.03am.
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