Health Board: Travel to Latvia and Lithuania does not have to be canceled

Mari-Anne Härma.
Mari-Anne Härma. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Mari-Anne Härma, Acting Director General of the Health Board (Terviseamet), said the Health Board is in communication with neighboring countries regarding COVID-19 infection rates. She said travel to high risk regions should be avoided and it is better to be in Estonia for now, but nature trips to Latvia and Lithuania do not have to be canceled.

Latvia's infection rate and the number of new cases has increased over the last week and the country re-established restrictions on catering establishments. Do such restrictions help?

Latvia assesses the situation and the dangers they are currently facing. Do they help Estonia? Certainly entertainment venues are locations of risk. Partying can also be called risky behavior, restrictions could help in that regard. Because infection indicators remain low currently, I can't say how effective they are.

Do restrictions on opening hours help alleviate infection or is it more of a symbolic restriction, keeping people indoors?

I imagine that all such methods which make people think about dangers help. It is hard to evaluate how we can measure these restrictions and what their actual benefits are.

How do the strategies of Estonia's neighbors differ from the strategy here?

Epidemiological measures, set by the Health Board, that we use are monitoring contact, advising and of course testing capacity. Those are quite similar to neighboring countries. We have discussed measures with neighboring countries by phone, so if they have had an outbreak, we are aware of it. We are dealing with epidemiological measures. In regards to borders and international restrictions, the government handles those.

There was a case in Latvia where a group of friends got infected and spread the infection further. It was also noted that infection spread on a Tallink ship. I presume you were in touch with Finnish agencies. How was the cooperation there?

Cooperation was so that if an infection was detected on a Finnish ship, the contacts of the infected were found by Finland and then they notify us via an early warning system that on that ship at that time, there was someone diagnosed with the coronavirus, most likely there were Estonians on board. Notify your people so that they could monitor their health.

The same with a party in Latvia, if there are cases discovered and the person infected knows there were Estonians at the party, they are contacted and notified that they were at a party with someone infected, monitor your health.

That is what the cooperation looks like. And if the party is considered an outbreak, they are treated individually in both Latvia and Finland.

Many holiday trips have been canceled this year, instead travel to the Baltic states is encouraged. In your assessment, is this reasonable or would you rather recommend people stay home and not travel abroad?

I certainly recommend traveling in Estonia and if you want to go further, travel to Latvia and Lithuania instead of somewhere with a high risk of infection where tickets might be cheap currently. It might come out that there are cheap tickets to Sweden, but the person has to account for the two-week self-isolation period when they return. During that period, they will not be paid benefits for temporary incapacity, the person has to be prepared to isolate at their own expense. That can be overwhelming for many, so trips should definitely be considered.

I would still call for people to be careful regarding infection. Unfortunately, if you travel somewhere with a high risk of infection, it is more likely that you will be infected.

Can one feel safe when traveling the Baltics?

Safe in the sense that you can probably enjoy your trip a little more. You must still be careful and remember the rules, hygiene and avoid crowded locations. Nature trips with precautions are totally welcome.

Have people who have returned from high-risk locations stayed in self-isolation or have there been any problems?

I have not heard of any problems. I believe people remain in self-isolation and take care of their health and the health of those close to them.

If there was a larger outbreak in Finland, Latvia or Lithuania, at what point would Estonia start re-establishing restrictions? Would the Health Board take into account in their recommendations to government that if there was a larger outbreak in Latvia, travel there should be restricted?

This type of information exchange is happening certainly. If we have a suspicion or issue, it is our duty to notify. We do not notify the government directly, there are agreements on how information should be exchanged and according to them, we are communicating in regards of countries that we should be careful about.

If there was an increase in the infection rate and restrictions need to be re-established, where would we start? We have just raised spectator capacity at events, is that something that would be restricted again?

It is good logic that the restrictions that were last relaxed, would be the ones re-established. It depends on the situation and region, there is no concrete rule of thumb. But we must monitor the situation and if we reach the point of restrictions, then capacity would be the beginning, going forward to more serious restrictions.

What kind of personal protective equipment (PPE) do you recommend using today?

Healthcare workers have their PPE. I don't actually recommend using any PPE for regular people on the streets. Our infection rate is good and the masks restrict breathing. I don't recommend using anything. Keep your hands clean, keep a handkerchief ready in case of sneezing. There is disinfectant available in most places. Keep your hands clean, follow general rules of prevention.

Can we say that wearing a mask is not practical at this time?

Wearing a mask is difficult, it is uncomfortable. Masks have their place and purpose, but for just walking around... They are uncomfortable and I would not recommend people wear them currently.

How likely is a second wave currently? Should we expect a return in autumn, how does it look right now?

Right now, I would not say a second wave is knocking on our door in the very near future. It depends on how often the virus is brought in by foreigners. It all falls on our behavior and if we can maintain our focus and follow principles of infection prevention. If there was a large increase in demand for travel, many cases are brought in, people do not go to the doctor and more outbreaks would follow.

It falls on health behavior, but the situation in Europe is currently relatively good so I do not predict a second wave in the near future. But we do have to be ready for autumn when other seasonal viruses will start to spread. There is the danger that the coronavirus will return with a new wave.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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