Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) believes that the coronavirus in Estonia is likely to have reached hundreds of cases rather than thousands, though that depends on factors including the effectiveness of measures, caution exercised by the public, and the actions of neighboring countries.
"Taking into account the fact that there is a certain latency period for this virus and given that, of course, it is not possible to test everyone who may be a carrier, we are probably talking about hundreds of people. This number is likely to increase in the near future as more cases with symptoms begin to present. We know that, in the high-risk areas alone, thousands of tourists, or potential recipients, visited those areas who, in turn, may have passed it on to their families, relatives and colleagues," Kiik said, in an interview given to ERR's online news in Estonian.
"There will probably be hundreds at first, but if you ask me if I can exclude that there are thousands, it is of course impossible to exclude," he went on.
As to the question about tests, Kiik said that the principle of health care was always to focus on those most at risk, such as the elderly, meaning those not in at-risk groups were not a priority for testing any more, though opportunities for paid testing still exist for those that want.
Kiik also expressed caution about individuals traveling to hospitals to have a test administered from their cars.
This is one possible measure, but the question is how to prevent an infected person from returning the disease to the hospital and likewise infecting others, including healthcare professionals, with their sample," he said.
Kuressaare Hospital on Saaremaa launched a carside coronavirus testing system on Saturday to cope with cases there. Both Saaremaa and Estonia's other western islands including Hiiumaa, Vormsi and Ruhnu are closed to entry for all but island residents under the government's executive measures.
All of this ultimately means that taxpayers have to be deprioritized for testing over those who do not now pay taxes, but Kiik reiterated that protecting the most vulnerable was paramount, adding that further discussions were needed to make more efficient use of medical resources to deal with other medical emergencies and incidents such as road traffic accidents, falls, domestic violence incidents etc.
"Of course, this work is coordinated by the social affairs ministry and the Social Insurance Board (sotsiaalkindlustusamet), and even today we have given very clear guidelines to municipalities on how to deal with and map risk groups - the elderly, the disabled, others unable to safely move, especially if, for example, he or she has been prescribed self-isolation by a treating physician and the recommendation is to stay at home, meaning that these people need special care."
All schools in Estonia are closed from Monday, March 16, with distance learning systems in place online, to continue schooling from home. One question is where those schoolchildren who previously received free school meals from Ministry of Education funds will get their replacement lunches from at home.
"We have made sure that when we made our restrictions, in regard to day care centers etc, the provision of social services will still go ahead within local authorities' remits. This comprises various welfare facilities, soups and food distribution. Naturally, we have to continue to take care of the weak, the poor, and above all those who are really at risk," Kiik said.
Employees and employers
With many Estonians working in Finland, including doctors who work in both countries, Kiik said that the administration is ensuring scope for cross-border healthcare provision, with the same applying to others in key responder roles.
"Of course, it is in our interest that all doctors from Estonia make the maximum contribution to protecting and treating the health of our people in Estonia, but no compulsory attitude can be applied at this time," Kiik went on.
As to the question of whether grocery stores and supermarkets would have to make cuts, kiik said this was a matter for the employers, adding that the latter needed to ensure the health and well-being of both customers and employees, including the use of disinfecting agents and protective equipment even as these are in short supply across the EU at present.
Kiik also said that many public sector bodies are set-up for remote teleworking, and, given many jobs do not necessitate a presence in the workplace at all time, he recommended it to all businesses.
When will coronavirus peak?
'Kiik said that he thought mid-April a reasonable current estimate for the period of gradual stabilization and downward trend for falling numbers of coronavirus cases, but with several caveats, including the public's actions, further state measures, measures taken by neighboring countries.
"In this sense, it is probably mid-April, but as always, the exact time will be known later," he said.
No country in the world has an exact figure for cases, he added
"When we talk about respiratory diseases, for example, there are about 3,500 to 4,000 people each week presenting with different seasonal colds. Certainly, most of these are not coronavirus; there is flu, other viruses and other illness. To start testing thousands of people every week is probably not feasible, especially if we are using an ambulance service resource that really has to deal with a lot of other things."
"We have to come up with a reasonable alternative here, based on medical indications, while at the same time helping to reduce public expectations about whether or not an individual has the virus," he went on.
"It is logical that the fewer social contacts there are and the fewer major gatherings, the less widely the disease can spread. And the more we monitor our health, as well as the health of those close to us, avoid people infected, inform our physician if necessary, and follow the recommendations of the attending physician [the better]. Regardless the illness - whether we have the flu, coronavirus or any other disease - it is very clear that staying home, resting, maintaining your own health, looking after family members and others, is a good idea in any case."
Editor: Andrew Whyte