Research: COVID-19 spreading undetected, outside main outbreaks

A social distancing sign at the Port of Tallinn which says:
A social distancing sign at the Port of Tallinn which says: "Why hug when you can wave". Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The coronavirus can spread outside of the focal points of outbreaks, often without being noticed, a new study by the University of Tartu found.

The nationwide study, led by the University of Tartu, tested over 2,500 people for the virus between September 21 and October 1, and found five individuals who returned positive but had shown no symptoms and had not to their knowledge had close contact with an infected person.

The researchers concluded that the true figure for cases in Estonia could be anything from 800 to over 5,000. The current official estimate of active COVID-19 cases is 684, according to the koroonakart.

Ruth Kalda, professor of family medicine at the University of Tartu, says the current infection figure is comparable with that of late April, but the severity of symptoms in positive cases has fallen, largely due to a change in attitudes to mild symptoms.

"Compared to spring, the general testing capacity has significantly improved. Much more people get tested now and the general message is that people must contact their family doctor even with the mildest symptoms. This is why we find more people with mild symptoms also in our study," Kalda said via a university press release.

Test subjects were also interviewed about what coronavirus precautionary measures they took, finding the opposite had happened here, particularly with younger people.

"While in the waves of April and May we saw people diligently adhering to the safe distancing rule, in September, only one third of subjects reported that," Kalda added. 

The hidden nature of recent spreads means that these measures are in fact more important, Kalda added.

"Many infected people may not even be aware of their infection and thus do not know to avoid contacts. This is why it is reasonable to strongly recommend wearing masks in public transport and public places, especially indoor spaces where keeping a safe distance is not possible", said Kalda. 

The HOIA mobile application is also helpful, she said, as it quickly notifies users of possible close contact with COVID-19-positive person.

The research was carried out in conjunction with market research company Kantar Emor and medical companies Medicum Specialist and Synlab Eesti.



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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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