Scientist: Estonia is in starting phase of second COVID-19 wave

KBFI senior researcher Mario Kadastik.
KBFI senior researcher Mario Kadastik. Source: ERR

The increasing number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases over the last few weeks in Estonia can seem cause for concern, with one scientist saying that while the situation is not as it was in spring, the beginnings of a second wave are evident.

Is the situation soon as serious as it was in April, when the virus first popped up, is a question that often gets asked.

Mario Kadastik, senior research fellow at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (KBFI), has worked on modeling the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Estonia, and says that: "Those infection numbers are not directly comparable to those in spring because testing conditions were different than today."

In spring, people in the at-risk groups and those who displayed clear symptoms of the virus were the main focuse of tests, meaning, according to Kadastik, a significant number of infected people were not detected. Today, however, the threshold for testing is much lowe,r and a larger amount of infected people are discovered as a result.

Kadastik said: "Whereas in spring we found 20 infected people, that number would be somewhere in the 60-70 range today. In that sense, we cannot say that we are in as bad a situation as we were in spring."

The researcher said the best indicator to compare the situation between spring and now is the number of people receiving treatment in hospital.Currently, that figure has started to increase, which points to considerable spread among the populace, and has also reached the risk group of those aged 60 and over.

On Monday, the Health Board (Terviseamet) announced that 33 people are receiving treatment in hospital.

Kadastik said all this points to Estonia being in the initial phase of a second wave of the coronavirus. "If we are looking at dealing with the rise of another wave, we are still in the beginning phase. If the wave lasts a month, three months, six months - it is too early to say," the scientist noted.

Another indicator to understand the spread is an infection rate which illustrates how many people have picked up the virus from one single infection. If that rate is over one, the virus is still spreading; if it is below one, it is slowly receding, and if the rate is precisely one, the spread is stable.

Infection rate is more important than number of cases

The infection rate in question during the emergency situation in spring was 2.5, which according to Kadastik shows that Estonia was very close to a major crisis. The spread is currently increasing, but not at the rate of a crisis situation developing in hospitals in a week or two from now. If the rate stays somewhere in the range of 1-1.2, the critical level will be reached in months, if the rate stays around 1.5, it will be one month, the scientist said.

Kadastik said: "Today, we are speaking about Harju County's infection rateas being a little less than one. Ida-Viru's rate is somewhere between 1.3-1.5. It is over what it was about a month ago, when the rate was much more than one, but that derives from the virus' outbreak capacity."

While there is a large number of cases at present, the virus is not spreading as widely as before because infected people do not transmit the virus, statistically speaking, as readily as in spring.

When it comes to COVID-19, it is critical to map out the infected people as fast as possible, Kadastik said. If their contacts are found within the first couple of days after diagnosis, the close contacts will stay at home and the spread will decrease. Some people at home might still come down with the virus, but the spread would not be drastic.

Kadastik noted: "If there is an outbreak, there will be infections for the next two to four weeks, most in the first week, after that the spread falls off."

He added that the fading of an outbreak depends largely on how rapidly the Health Board can get in touch with close contacts. "Then the outbreak can end soon, if the contacts are responsible and distance themselves from others."

Stopping the coronavirus depends on confirming outbreaks

The situation will turn critical if the Health Board is no longer able to make sure where people picked up the virus.

Kadastik said: "If we are looking at the latest press releases from the Health Board, about half are discovered the day of and the cases are normally specified within the next couple of days. If the outbreaks are caught, we largely have the situation under control."

The Health Board has hired five additional "coronavirus detectives", a role now held by 37 people across Estonia. The Health Board is currently monitoring some 3,600 people, six times more than it was a month ago.

Eike Kingsepp, spokesperson for the Health Board, said that this is sufficient to keep an eye on things for now. "On average, the detectives are working 12-hour workdays and our primary problem is that people need a break at some point."

Managing outbreaks depends on the willingness to cooperate and Kingsepp is calling on everyone who has taken a coronavirus test to think about who they had been in contact with over the days preceding.

Thanks to an automated coronavirus close contact notification dialer rolled out in September, the Health Board is hopeful they can keep the spread under control, unless there is an explosive outbreak.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste, Andrew Whyte

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