Lutsar: Easing of restrictions before Midsummer Day out of the question

A spike in coronavirus cases will postpone recommendations for lifting additional restrictions planned for this week. Head of the government's COVID-19 research council, professor of virology Irja Lutsar tells ERR that the number of new cases needs to start falling before Estonia can return to alleviating restrictions.

What were the recommendation in terms of lifting restrictions the council made to the government today?

The council looked at the current epidemiological situation and it is hardly news that we are seeing modest growth in the number of new cases. This is not the right time to alleviate restrictions. We discussed how to get the situation under control so the case rate would at least not continue growing. We are not so naive as to think the disease will simply disappear, while we would like to maintain the current case rate more or less.

We discussed restrictions and made no recommendations for easing them today. Things will remain as they are, people are still urged to keep their distance from others, not to throw big parties, not to host over 100 people outdoors. Outdoor graduation ceremonies are perhaps not a major problem, but as we could see on Monday, when it starts raining out of the blue, people rush indoors where it's cramped, moist and cool – everything the virus needs to spread.

Perhaps we can recommend easing of restrictions once we have the next batch of survey results that should happen around Midsummer, by which time we can tell whether the situation's improving or deteriorating. No one knows that today.

Meaning that people itching to visit night clubs and hookah bars have no hope before Midsummer Eve?

I'm sorry to say this, but that is likely the sum of it. However, I would like to remind people of something the Health Board has been saying all along: do not go to work even if you only have minor symptoms. I would urge people to get tested! Coronavirus tests are available to all through family doctors. If you or members of your family have been ordered to isolate, please stay in. If we can localize the virus, we can get it under control that much sooner. If we cannot, there may be some really bad news in store. We do not want that.

Is the rise in the number of new cases a sign that restrictions were lifted too soon?

No, definitely not. The council and other experts have said that the case rate will spike upon lifting of restrictions. We knew that. Had we waited until late July to ease restrictions, the number of cases would simply have started growing then. It was a conscious decision as we were moving closer to summer. Diseases are less serious in summer months and we also knew the spread would be easier to contain in summer, compared to September when children go to school and everyone goes to work. It was the right time.

In a situation where major gatherings are not recommended, what will happen to summer camps?

Children are not the primary sufferers or spreaders of this disease. Nothing about this applies to summer camps. It is a disease of parties and gatherings of adults as we have seen in Estonia. One current outbreak started at a birthday party (the party was held in Rapla County on May 9 – ed.). The Health Board is still busy containing it.

If lawyers say that the emergency situation is over, what is the epidemiological opinion? Is the emergency ongoing or have we returned to normalcy?

We are on the road to normalcy. We have no experience coming out of such restrictions. We said right away that it was like climbing down a ladder. If the lower rung is broken, you have to climb back up and try again. Trial and error is what will get us down off that ladder. We are on the road to normalcy, while we have a long way to go still.

Daily statistics suggests the number of people in hospitals is falling and no one has been on assisted breathing for some time. At the same time, the number of cases is growing. When could we see people need to be hospitalized again?

We cannot rule out that happening. The disease's long progression is a well-known fact. New cases peaked last week and it is possible we will see these people taken to hospital a few weeks from now. Looking at epidemiological data, mainly young people are catching the disease. It is easier on young people, while we have seen new cases spike in the 50+ age group in the past week. I do not know whether they are people in their fifties or nineties – there is a great difference. But hospitals have not closed their COVID-19 wards.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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