Bleakest coronavirus scenario avoided, restrictions may ease ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Road sign on Liivalaia street in Tallinn reading
Road sign on Liivalaia street in Tallinn reading "Stay at Home!" in Estonian and Russian. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Scientists say Estonia has avoided the worst-case scenario in the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, with it likely to be clear in the near future which of the current restrictions can be removed and when.

Current modeling suggests there is no likelihood of a recurrence of the virus either.

"Coronavirus infections are not going up but, unfortunately, they are not clearly going down either," said Professor Irja Lutsar, of the University of Tartu's Institute of Biomedical and Transplant Medicine, speaking to ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Tuesday night.

"We can see that there is a similar picture in Norway and Denmark," she went on.

Hospitalization picture: Saaremaa exceptional

The number of people in need of hospital treatment is considered to be one of the indicators used to assess a country's ability to cope with the crisis, Lutsar said.

Saaremaa has a higher hospitalization rate than the rest of the country.

"The usual indication for hospitalization is when a person is very ill and can no longer cope with their illness at home, but there (in Saaremaa - ed.) the fact that people working at care homes and the hospital got infected plays a role," Lutsar went on.

Current morbidity statistics show that the Estonian medical system is certainly not overloaded, including in intensive care units, Lutsar went on.

Earlier reports had put April 10-20 as the turning point, after which either the virus started to subside or the medical system reached overload.

There are 157 places in the intensive care departments at Estonian hospitals for those patients who need ventilators, Lutsar continued, with fewer than half of these places taken up at present, due to all causes – the bulk of patients in intensive care do not have COVID-19.

"There are more than 70 patients in intensive care in Estonia at the moment, 12 of these are COVID-19 patients, and at the moment I do not see that a person in need of hospital or intensive care, with or without COVID, would be deprived of that right now," Lutsar said.

Emergency situation should not be wound up yet, though clear exit preparations needed

Although the bleakest scenario has not yet materialized in Estonia, Lutsar does not see any reason to end the state's emergency situation, declared on March 12, before April 19, but in her opinion, preparations should be made by setting very clear criteria.

"This would ensure that there aren't so many sick people in the hospital that the intensive care unit capacity runs out. That's one we're sure to look at very carefully," she said.

Partial relaxation of restrictions on medical care could be considered first, she added.

Social affairs minister: We can start thinking about how to gradually restart normal societal life

Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) said the restrictions will prolong to a certain extent, and whether current restrictions have worked will be clear in a few weeks. 

"If the number of infected people starts to decrease, followed by the number of people in need of hospital treatment, then we can start thinking about how to gradually restart societal life," he said.

A government working group is currently analyzing what restrictions can be eased.

Kiik added that the impact of measures on the spread of the infection, the economy and social life must be considered.

 "Of course, we have to start with those areas where the risk of a viral outbreak is lower and where we clearly see a significant practical need," said Kiik.

Those measures which do not have such a societal impact, such as the use of disinfectant, social distancing and not having major public events are the ones which will las tlonger.

The cabinet also discussed on Tuesday how to gradually restore teaching in schools, with the Ministry of Education preparing a corresponding plan.

"On the one hand, the question here is that while study in Estonia can be organized quite well in the form of distance learning, the need for certain meetings, especially for primary classes or students with special needs, undoubtedly exists," Kiik said, adding that greater easing here is likely to come into play in May rather than April.

The end of the emergency situation in Estonia depends first and foremost on whether it is possible to prevent a new outbreak along the lines of what happened in Saaremaa, in another region, such as Ida-Viru County, Kiik said.

Legal nuances also need to be considered, as well as comparisons with other countries, including whether the Health Board can impose restrictions once the government's emergency situation is over.

Saaremaa's situation is being modeled differently from the rest of the country, Irja Lutsar said.

"We don't want to separate Saaremaa from Estonia in any way, but the morbidity rate there is different, the attitude towards hospitalization of patients is different - everything is different. So [separate] models have been made for mainland Estonia and Saaremaa," said Lutsar.

Currently, 40 percent of new coronavirus infections are on Saaremaa, year-round population a little over 31,000, and half of those in hospital are from the island.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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