Dr. Marc Siegel: Iceland and coronavirus – island a haven from politics of fear, even as delta variant spreads

Over 85% of Iceland’s population has had at least one shot and there hasn’t been a new case over a month

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As of July 1, Iceland is removing all COVID restrictions, despite the emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant throughout Europe and on into the United States. If it seems strange to you that Iceland would choose this moment to be defiant and courageous in the face of a viral threat that isn’t yet extinguished, you would be wrong.

Consider the science. Over 85% of Iceland’s population has been vaccinated with at least one shot and there hasn’t been a new case over a month. How is this possible with the delta variant spreading? 

Simple. Most travelers into the country have been vaccinated against COVID or have demonstrable antibodies showing that they have recovered from COVID and have natural immunity. As of July 1, you will no longer need to be tested at all if you are in this group, while other unvaccinated visitors who have not had COVID are tested twice and quarantined in between.

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So far the dike is holding firm. I experienced the hugely positive psychological relief of going maskless this week in Iceland in public places and swimming free with smiling locals in the brand new hot-springs fed Sky Lagoon overlooking the sea. Iceland has a craterous otherworldly feel, and the freedom from COVID contributes to this in a positive way.

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Meanwhile, in the United States and Europe things are different, thanks to both vaccine noncompliance coupled with the delta variant, which is far more transmissible, and appears to impact younger people more than previous version of SARS COV 2.

In the U.S., less than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated, despite the fact that two shots of an MRNA vaccine or one shot plus the natural immunity from COVID appear to offer effective protection. Much attention has been paid to the very rare complication of myocarditis associated with these vaccines in teens, compared to the far greater long and short term multi-organ system risks from COVID itself in this same age group. 

At the same time, it is far more disturbing to consider the continuing lack of vaccine compliance in the older age group who remain at far greater risk of COVID complications.

Punitive approaches haven’t worked throughout the pandemic and they aren’t going to work now either.

We have the tools to defeat the delta variant. Vaccine and natural immunity from COVID will protect you. A recent Associated Press review of Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) data reveals that hospitalization and death is extremely unlikely if you have been fully vaccinated. 

Israel is acting out of fear by reinstituting a mask mandate in public places for less than 300 new cases per day. The World Health Organization is wrong to suggest reinstating mask mandates and our own CDC is right to resist this notion.

Don’t get me wrong, proper masking in public places continues to make sense if you are aren’t vaccinated or recovered from COVID, but government mandates extended across the board to those who don’t need them are part of the politics of fear.

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Punitive approaches haven’t worked throughout the pandemic and they aren’t going to work now either. Many of our Southern and Western states are at greater risk of outbreaks from the delta variant because of a combination of vaccine hesitancy and resistance of government edicts combined with lower case numbers so far compared with New York and California, for example.

The path forward is simple – science instead of fear, public health messaging instead of the duplicity of politics. 

If you are vaccinated you have nothing to be afraid of. If you aren’t vaccinated, you should be. If you have recovered from COVID, you have significant immunity that can be enhanced by the vaccine.

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Iceland is a proud country that understands this. It would be a cliché to say that Icelanders have ice water in their veins, especially since the country is warmed by the gulf stream and powered by geothermal energy. But as someone who has studied outbreaks and associated fear and hysteria for a long time, I wasn’t aware before this week of their shining example of courage. 

This island nation stood strong in the face of the Nazi threat during World War II, and stands strong again in the face of a different kind of threat. Anyone who walks a glacier or stares down molten lava in an active volcano or hikes a slippery ledge without flinching will tell you that courage overcomes fear every time.

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