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Iceland: What ‘normal’ looks like when people get vaccinated

STORY BY MILTON R. BENJAMIN (Week of July 15, 2021)

Want a glimpse of how much better the future could be if only enough people would get vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable?

My wife and I just got a brief look at such a world on a 10-day visit to Iceland.

Unlike Indian River County, where COVID-19 is again surging and nearly 18 people a day are testing positive (see accompanying story), Iceland – with a population twice that of our county – reported NO new cases during the most recent one-week period.

None. Zero. In fact, as of the start of this week, no new positives – except for a handful discovered in arriving tourists – have been reported in Iceland since late May.

Might that possibly have anything to do with vaccinations, which have fallen way off here in Vero?

In recent weeks, Iceland’s vaccination rate has soared – the countrywide total of those fully vaccinated last week passed 70 percent, with an additional 18 percent of adults partially vaccinated and awaiting a second shot.

The result: On June 26, Iceland became the first country in Europe to drop all restrictions on its residents, including social distancing, mask-wearing, and limits on gatherings. And on July 1, visitors with an approved vaccination certificate no longer had to undergo testing to enter the country.

This almost-90-percent vaccination rate made it possible for us to fly to Reykjavik the morning of July 1 and spend the following week circumnavigating Iceland on a Viking cruise ship, visiting towns and cities all over the country.

While the ship took extreme COVID-19 precautions onboard, we spent days exploring coastal communities on our own, dining in packed Icelandic restaurants, buying gifts in crowded shops, joining locals in dispensing with our masks and social distancing, savoring a life that seemed almost normal.

A taxi driver and part-time policewoman we met in the small eastern Icelandic town of Seydisfjordur had an explanation for the country’s high vaccination rate.

“We tell anyone reluctant to get the shot that it is not just to protect them – it’s to protect our society, and to protect a normal way of life,” she said. “That generally seems to persuade them.”

Sounds about right to me. But would that work here?  In the days before we left, we encountered a young nurse in the Cleveland Clinic Emergency Room.  She hadn’t had a shot and didn’t plan to get one. Getting vaccinated was all about her. She wasn’t concerned. She didn’t think she needed it. An Emergency Room nurse! 

On our way home from the airport Sunday night, we decided to end our vacation by dining at a local restaurant.

Told there would be a 40-minute wait for an outside table, we decided to have dinner in an inside dining room. While our bodies were back in the U.S., our minds must still have been in Iceland because it was an hour into our meal before I began wondering whether the young server – who had spent so much time maskless only a couple of feet from us explaining the menu – had been vaccinated.

“I was vaccinated a couple of weeks ago,” she later assured us. “But I know so many young people who aren’t getting the shot. It’s just crazy.”

Crazy, and frightening. 

Now that we are back in Vero, I guess we will have to be more careful about wearing a mask and social distancing once again. Unless something happens to change young minds about vaccination, I fear the future here is not going to look like the “normal” we’ve been hoping for any time soon.