The COVID-19 border screening programme has been running for just short of a month. The first weeks of the initiative have been a little rocky; political disputes and group infections have prompted some major changes. But for the most part infection rates have remained low.
Note: If you’re looking for the latest travel advice and updates go to covid.is or read our guide to border procedures. There’s also a handy video from the Icelandic health authorities.
Since June 15th, 34,864 samples have been taken at the border for COVID-19 testing, according to covid.is. Just 76 individuals arriving from abroad have tested positive and of those only 12 were found to have an active COVID-19 infection.
There has only been one day where no passengers tested positive and the highest number of active infections in one day has been two. The last active infection was detected on July 7th.
To date, 64 individuals have tested positive for the virus, but have not been found to be infectious. People who have recovered from COVID-19 can continue testing positive months later. These individuals are sent into isolation pending an antibody test to confirm that they have indeed recovered from the infection.
Domestic infection numbers have also remained relatively low. Just 11 cases have been detected, one by deCODE genetics and the rest by the public health services. The most recent case was detected on July 2nd. The majority of these cases were in connection with two concerning group infections, most notably an incident involving an Icelandic footballer who falsely tested negative after returning home from the United States.
New rules for returning Icelanders
Today, July 13th, new rules come into effect for Icelandic residents and citizens returning home today. On arrival, Icelanders will have to complete a period of “heimkomusmitgát” (home-coming contagion caution). This means not only will they be tested for COVID-19 at the border and they will also be required to undergo a second free PCR test at a local healthcare centre four to five days later. Until they get the results of the second test Icelanders should:
- Maintain two-metre distancing
- Only attend gatherings of up to ten people
- Avoid high-risk individuals e.g. the elderly
- Avoid physical contact
Heimkomusmitgát is not the same as quarantine; Icelanders will be permitted to use public transport, go to shops and meet family and friends whilst they await test results.
According to Chief Epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason, these new measures are designed to reduce the risk of false negatives. This comes after two group infections linked to Icelanders returning from abroad since the start of the border screening programme.
One of the major political problems surrounding the border screenings has been the participation of the Icelandic genetics research company, deCODE. CEO Kári Stefánsson refused to participate in border screenings in the first place following a perceived snub from the health minister. But after a meeting with the Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir the company announced a u-turn.
A month on and the deCODE dispute has been reignited. Kári initially indicated that the company would stop processing samples from the COVID-19 border screenings today, but the withdrawal has been postponed for a week to give Landspítali more time to boost its testing capacity, Visir reports. In a statement explaining the decision, Kári cited the government’s failure to properly consult deCODE or have a long-term plan for the border screening programme. He also called for an Icelandic institute of epidemiology to be set up.
As reported, the departure of deCODE has thrown many aspects of the screening programme into uncertainty. Without deCODE, the Virology Department of Landspítali Hospital can only analyse 500 samples a day. Today, Isavia warned that many scheduled flights to Iceland will be cancelled over the next few days and that the number of daily flights will reduce significantly, Turisiti reports.
Health authorities are currently considering halting screening for travellers from certain low-risk areas, just as has been the case for passengers arriving from the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The possibility of analysing multiple samples at once is also being considered after successful use of the method in Germany. Chief Surgeon Alma Moller suggested today that ten samples could be tested at once, Visir reports.
Iceland is also waiting for equipment that will increase diagnostic capacity, but Alma has warned that the devices are unlikely to arrive until October.
The government announced a drop in the charge for border PCR tests some weeks after screening began. From July 1st, the price was reduced to 11,000 ISK if paid on arrival or 9,000 ISK if paid in advance online.
It was previously announced that the price would be 15,000 ISK, prompting widespread criticism from tourism companies. According to a government statement the price reduction was brought in because testing had proved more cost-efficient than initially planned due to higher testing capacity. Initially it was thought that just 500 tests per day could be processed but thanks to deCODE’s participation this number was boosted to 2000 tests per day. It is unclear what deCODE’s departure will mean for the programme’s finances.
A quick note about border restrictions: As reported, many countries are still barred from entry into Iceland, including the United States. It is unknown when this will change. At the time of writing nationals or residents from EU and EEA nations and the UK are allowed to travel to Iceland – Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay will be added shortly. (This information has been updated)
This article was updated at 17:30
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