Svandís Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s Minister of Health, explains the importance of testing, communication, and technology in the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 infection.
Iceland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely determined a success, with 112 hospitalisations and 10 deaths from the virus as of mid-July 2020. While the country reported one of the proportionally highest total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, this is attributable at least in part to its widespread and comprehensive testing protocols, assisted by Icelandic biotech and genomics firm deCODE genetics. HEQ speaks with Iðunn Garðarsdóttir, Political Advisor to Icelandic Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir, about the country’s testing programme, the role of technology in averting the spread of infection, and the importance of open public communication.
How significant have widespread ‘test and trace’ measures been to Iceland’s relative success in combating the spread of COVID-19?
Large scale and early testing gave us the critical information needed to tailor our response to the actual situation. Iceland’s targeted measures were moderate but effective, based on science and the best available information at any given time. Effective contact tracing protocols also contributed immensely to how quickly the authorities were able to get the pandemic under control, as 57% of all those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to this day were already under quarantine, and therefore not contributing to the spread of the disease.
Iceland’s testing programme is operated by the private genetics lab deCODE: has collaboration between the public and private sectors been valuable in responding to the pandemic?
deCODE Genetics’ contribution was essential to the large scale screening that was done among the general public. Landspítali, the national university hospital in Iceland, has tested symptomatic individuals; and the collaboration between the public and private sector in this matter have been extremely important and beneficial in our response to and containment of COVID-19.
What have been the benefits of deCODE’s genetic sequencing capabilities for mapping the spread of the infection?
deCODE’s sequencing capabilities did in fact show early on that the virus was not only coming in from areas that Iceland had defined very early on as high-risk areas, such as Northern Italy and the Alps, but also from the UK and other countries. Eventually, this led to all countries being defined as high risk areas; and from 19 March 2020, all Icelandic nationals and residents returning to Iceland were required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. The sequencing has also shown that children are generally not infectious: children who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have generally not infected their parents or other close contacts. It is evident now that deCODE’s screening gave us valuable insight into the situation, but I also want to mention that the Icelandic government followed the instructions of the Chief Epidemiologist at all times, so our response was in every step of the way based on the recommendations of experts.
Has the public’s response to widespread testing and quarantine restrictions been largely co-operative? Is public trust an issue for health authorities?
Open and frequent communication has contributed to a very high level of trust in health authorities in Iceland. A team of experts conducted daily televised briefings from late February, prior to the first diagnosis in Iceland, until early May, and they still hold open press meetings regularly. We in the government have also held press meetings and emphasised good communication to the public on every action that has been taken. The strategy was to maintain a very high level of transparency and it led to a 96% approval rate of the response of the Icelandic authorities in a Gallup poll last April.
What role have technology and digital innovation played in the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iceland?
Technology has played a supportive role in the response to COVID-19. Test results have been made available to a personal health portal, accessible to all Icelandic residents. Today, passengers arriving in Iceland are encouraged to download and use the contact tracing app Rakning C-19 which has been developed in line with the strictest privacy protocols, where they can also get the most up to date information and contact health authorities directly through a chat function. Around 40% of Icelanders have downloaded the tracing app.
Remote care was another key measure, for example at the University Hospital in Iceland, allowing for the immediate treatment of worsening symptoms in a designated ambulatory unit that was set up for this purpose thus preventing more severe infections, and minimising the need for hospitalisations and intensive care.
What support measures are in place for the welfare of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff?
The Icelandic government decided to pay all those who had been working with or near COVID-19 patients a special bonus to thank them for their contribution in the reaction to the pandemic. We in the government are extremely grateful for their work in this matter.
Minister of Health
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