COVID-19 Pandemic Hits Iceland: What’s Happening There?

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to 199 countries, including the secluded island nation of Iceland. As of Sunday, Iceland’s health ministry reported 963 confirmed cases, 14,635 completed tests, 9,908 people in quarantine and that 114 people recovered. 

The country recently recorded its first death six days ago, of a 70-year-old woman at Iceland’s National University Hospital in Reykjavík. In terms of the containment measures enforced, Iceland has overtaken Korea since 3.4 percent of the country’s population has undergone testing already.

Mass testing is easier in Iceland with a population of just 364,000 people. So far, the U.S. has tested only 766,761 of its 327 million citizens, as per the COVID-19 Project’s data tracker. As of now, the U.S. government does not want to enforce national testing requirements. It's primarily because they do not want to slow down the zeal of state authorities with bureaucratic hurdles that accompany federal testing policies. 

Contact tracing also seems abysmal right now in the U.S., no where close to what Iceland claims to have accomplished. Iceland has a National Crisis Coordination Center aggressively hunting down all potential contacts of infected people. 

“As quickly as we can, we have to reach everyone that might have been in contact with someone who’s positive, and try to stop them before they get in contact with more people,” Gestur Palmason, a veteran police detective who's part of the team implementing the core strategy of eliminating the virus, told NBC News. While this may seem intrusive, a recent poll suggested that 90 percent of Icelanders showed their support towards the initiative.

Coronavirus COVID-19 Test Kit A medical staff displays a test kit to detect the novel coronavirus at a COVID-19 screening-drive, at the Amsterdam UMC in Amsterdam The Netherlands, on March 24, 2020. ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Technical support is lacking worldwide, but not in Iceland it seems. The country is able to successfully carry out large scale testing of all its people with the help of the Icelandic medical research company, deCODE Genetics. The idea behind testing those without symptoms is to understand the underlying mechanisms of COVID-19 spread among communities, especially when other countries are focusing only on people exhibiting symptoms.

The concept of testing asymptomatic people is a unique approach to figuring out the pathology of the coronavirus. This has thrown up an important finding: Half of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Iceland were asymptomatic. “Early results from deCode Genetics indicate that a low proportion of the general population has contracted the virus and that about half of those who tested positive are non-symptomatic,” Thorolfur Guðnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, said.

“The other half displays very moderate cold-like symptoms. This data can also become a valuable resource for scientific studies of the virus in the future,” Guðnason added further. The tests also showed that one-fifth of the high risk population tested positive and about 1 percent of the population were carriers of the virus asymptomatically. 

Iceland’s health director, Dr. Alma Moeller, expects the disease to peak by mid-April. In the worst case scenario, 20 intensive care beds alongside ventilators are needed, according to Moeller. With only 13 to 14 beds arranged for now, Moeller aims to increase available facilities.