Virology professor on coronavirus trend and relaxing restrictions

Irja Lutsar.
Irja Lutsar. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Mother´s Day and the opening of the shopping malls haven´t increased the number of coronavirus cases. The experience of those countries which opened their borders before Estonia did is encouraging too - the feared increased of the number hasn´t materialized, yet.

Head of the government´s coronavirus scientific council, virology professor Irja Lutsar, admits that the situation in Estonia is calm even though the shipping lines between Estonia and Finland, and the Estonian-Latvian border crossings, have been restored and shopping malls reopened, following the end of the emergency situation on Sunday. Furthermore, people have gradually started to return to their workplaces. The recent Mother´s Day didn´t increase the infection figures either.

It is still early days yet, however, Professor Lutsar noted.

"It can be the case that the number of infected will start to increase," Lutsar said.

"If it rises a little bit, that is one thing, but it´s crucial to know who every new person infected is, and check his or her close ones, for the virus to not spread."

In fact, using this very precaution, the authorities have managed to find an infected person who came arrived in Estonia from Finland, following the restoration of ferry links for work and other essential purposes. The individual is staying in quarantine currently, it is reported.

Despite the relatively placid situation, the government has opted not to dispense with Professor Lutsar's scientific council just yet, since, at the same time, it needs to prepare for a possible recurrence of the pandemic in autumn.

Sweden and the U.K. still causing worry

The number of infected is decreasing in neighboring states as well. In Lithuania and Latvia, which both had lower per capita rates than Estonia, the situation is the same and the trend is decreasing in Finland too.

The only countries in Europe where the situation remains of high concern at present are Sweden and the U.K., Lutsar said.

Sweden has stood out in the media for dealing with the pandemic by not imposing many regulations; the U.K. took this approach early on, before doing an about turn.

"In Sweden, the number is not decreasing significantly, but they claim that they are testing much more. It doesn't stand out from the publicly available numbers, but they plan to test a lot of people. Back in the first week of May, they were getting up to 12 percent positive tests, while in Estonia it has very rarely been more than one percent in recent weeks. We're still testing a lot more," Professor Lutsar said.

At the same time, the death rate in Sweden has dropped, and fewer and fewer people are needing intensive care.

"Whereas other countries have seen lovely angles in the graphs showing a falling trend, then they (i.e. Sweden) don´t have this," Professor Lutsar added.

Other countries´ encouraging experience

Lutsar has been closely following what is happening in the countries which started to reopen their societies earlier than Estonia. From thess, only Iran saw its infection rate rise again. However, nothing like this has happened in Europe.
"Austria, Denmark, Norway, Spain, and Italy, to some extent - none of these have seen an increase in the numbers. There were announcements from Germany some time ago that their rate was increasing, but the reason was that in slaughterhouses, which employ migrant workers from Eastern Europe, there are very localized outbreaks. Everybody knew about the problems, but ignored them. The salary, living conditions, contracts for the migrant workers - we all knew about the issues," Lutsar said. "It´s the same phenomenon with the mmigrant workers in Sweden - people living in different information spaces can´t afford to not go to work when ill."

Despite the fact the experience of other countries is encouraging, Estonia is sticking with the tactics that society will be opened gradually. There are to be two weeks between rounds of the relaxing of restrictions.

Many have been surprised that while people are sweating in the gyms, cinemas, theatre, and concert halls are still closed where safety would be easy to ensure.

Lutsair added that important choices needed to be made.

"Priorities had to be set, and since physical activity is not only about building up muscle, but also about invigorating the mind - I'm not saying cinema and theater don't do the same - opening things in such an order seemed the right thing to do," Lutsar justified the decision thus.

"Of course, there is no wrong or right. If I´m a big movie-goer, then it seems unfair. But these are the choices we face. We must opt to not close the places soon again, but to postpone some of the openings [instead]."

Closing the country in autumn is not planned

Lutsar said that at the same time, the country is preparing for a possible outbreak return in fall. There are many scenarios in the works here: That it will happen again with the same intensity, or a wave with a much higher intensity will come, among the principal ones.

"The current plan is that when something needs to be stopped, closed, it would be more focused. Closing the whole country is nobody´s wish. However, it is not ruled out that some things need to be closed," Lutsar said.

As kindergartens remained open throughout the emergency situation, primary
schools ay thus remain open in autumn.

"It could mean, yes, that primary schools can also remain open. Closing schools is only an extreme solution," she said.

"We've offered the education system the possibility of taking smaller classes, or scattered schooling, meaning some children attend in the morning and others in the afternoon/evening. This requires thinking things through, and maybe it is possible to make students sit with more spread-out seating plans."

It has also been suggested that older school children attend school for three days and study at home for two, which is an easier solution regarding discipline than studying at home for weeks, it is argued.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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