Professor Lutsar: Direct flights infection ceiling should be raised

Professor Irja Lutsar at Wednesday's press conference.
Professor Irja Lutsar at Wednesday's press conference. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Virology professor and head of the government's coronavirus scientific council Irja Lutsar says that the main issue with flights and the coronavirus comes with connecting flights, adding that direct flights are notably less risky. For this reason, Lutsar says the ceiling on national infection rates, beyond which direct links should be canceled, should be raised.

Lutsar noted that COVID-19 spread via people, not planes, and said that international communication should not suffer unduly. 

"The Scientific Council recommends this, that we maintain international communication. Certainly, the virus does not come here in an empty plane. It is a human virus, we deal with the people who fly in these planes," Lutsar said at a press conference Wednesday. 

Testing at airports or as soon as possible after a flight is the way to curb the virus, she went on. 

"The idea of ​​testing at the airport was not to shorten the quarantine period but to get the positives early. It is safer to come to Estonia by direct flight than to be at these many airports. During the spring outbreak, some people became infected in planes and at airports," Lutsar said, referring to a recent change in policy which allows arrivals from coronavirus high-risk countries to take a test soon after landing, followed by another one within seven days. Returning negative to both of these tests would remove all quarantining restrictions on the individual; in between the first test results and those of the second, individuals could leave home for essential work. 

While the Health Board (Terviseamet) has sometimes differed on policy with the scientific council, its acting head, Mari-Anne Härma, also appearing at Wednesday's press conference, said that the current limit of 25 infected individuals per 100,000 inhabitants in the preceding 14 days should be raised, before direct flights were halted. 

A middle ground must be found as a well as flexibility in replacing outworn measures with more up-to-date ones, while still preserving risk mitigation, Härma said. 

Lutsar noted that the 25 per 100,000 rule, imposed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, was set in spring, when the epidemiological situation was different than today, with lower rates and infections appearing more among the younger demographic. 

Lutsar: No vaccine until absolutely safe, Estonian people not guinea pigs

Härma qualified the Health Board's stance by noting that travel was the main vector of viral spread, including from high-risk, mostly European countries such as Luxembourg and the Netherlands, though these lines were not clearly drawn, she said. 

Lutsar also said that no vaccine will be in common use in Estonia until it is unequivocally proven safe. 

"Vaccine research is proceeding at a dizzying pace," Lutsar said, adding that testing would not be conducted on the Estonian people, even as initial vaccines are likely to arrive in the fall, flowing a pre-purchase agreement for a coronavirus vaccine with the drug giant AstraZeneca.  

The vaccine, currently being tested in Oxford, England, should provide over 1.3 million doses, for about 665,000 people – approximately half the population of Estonia. 

Of the 17 new COVID-19 cases reported in Estonia in the past 24 hours, more than half are in Ida-Viru County, scene of a recent outbreak at a bar in the town of Jõhvi and linked to a nearby oil shale mine. There were also seven in Harju County, by far the most populous Estonian county, and one in neighboring Lääne-Viru County. 


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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