Government expert: COVID-19 reality doesn't mean restrictions can't change

Professor Irja Lutsar on Tuesday's
Professor Irja Lutsar on Tuesday's "Esimene stuudio". Source: ERR

Head of the government's coronavirus scientific council (Valitsuse teadusnõukoda) and Tartu university virologist Professor Irja Lutsar said that learning to live with the coronavirus is a reality, even if and when a widely-available vaccine comes on the market, and need not lead to mass closure of schools or continuing strict travel restrictions.

Speaking on ETV politics discussion show "Esimene stuudio" on Tuesday evening, Lutsar repeated earlier statements she has made saying there is no reason to think the coronavirus is going away any time soon, even with a potential vaccine reaching the public next year. 

Relaxing restrictions in European countries has led to a resurgence in rates, Lutsar noted; next year is quite an optimistic estimate for mass vaccine availability, which in any case will not make populations 100 percent immune.

"There is no vaccine coming today or tomorrow. The most optimistic scenario is that the studies will end by the end of the year, but no pharmaceutical company has disclosed how the tests are going – these are trade secrets," she said. 

The continuing realities of living alongside the coronavirus also stretch to travel restrictions, Lutsar said, adding that resurgences notwithstanding, the 16 per 100,000 COVID-19 infection rate, beyond which arrivals in Estonia must self-quarantine, is a low figure in need of revising, but also shows how far things have come since the peak of the pandemic in spring. 

"The Baltic bubble (area of free travel between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – ed.) is very important, but I would like to note that the travel restriction rates are very low – 16 per 100,000 in two weeks is a very low number, it is a figure we set in the spring. Then that infection rate seemed so low that it seemed like It would take an eternity to get there. I would suggest that we review these numbers," Lutsar said, adding that she liked French President Emmanuel Macron's proposal to keep national borders open to travelers in Europe. 

Lutsar also reiterated statements she had recently made that direct flights were actually more sensible than connecting flights, as passengers get less potential exposure to coronavirus infection that way. 

The current ceiling beyond which direct flights are off the table is 25 reported COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, as set by the economic affairs ministry, though some exceptions have been granted

Lutsar also said that the recent spike in coronavirus rates in Estonia has nothing to do with the schools going back on September 1, as their origins were earlier in the summer and largely the result of parties and social events.  

Epicenters have included Tartu, whose rate is now going down, and Ida-Viru County, particularly the town of Jõhvi, though its rate is also receding at present.

School teachers themselves are not at significant infection risk, in comparison with health workers, she said, and school closures should generally be avoided even in the case of a COVID-19 case or cases.

"It has been well demonstrated that the coronavirus does not spread very far, so only close contacts need to be isolated. In the school context, this means just the one class which must be closed. Closing the whole school is still a very, very extreme measure," she said.

The Scientific Council will further discuss potential nationwide late-night alcohol sales bans to match those already in place Harju, Tartu, Põlva, Valga, Võru and Ida-Viru counties, on Wednesday, the professor said.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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