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Head of scientific council: Decreased case numbers do not display trend

Head of the government's COVID-19 scientific council Irja Lutsar.
Head of the government's COVID-19 scientific council Irja Lutsar. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The head of the government's scientific council and University of Tartu virology and medical microbiology professor Irja Lutsar told ERR that while the number of new cases of COVID-19 over the last few days has been low, it does not display nor confirm a downward trend.

How do you explain our epidemiological situation in the context of the low numbers of new cases over the last days?

Some outbreaks have most likely been gotten under control. It seems to me that there have been less newly infected people in Tallinn in recent days, but new cases keep adding up in Ida-Viru County.

Editor's note: The number of new cases over last 24 hours for Sunday and Monday, October 12, was 19 and 18 respectively, compared to 37 on Friday.

In this context, have some established restrictions showed results? For example, the nationwide ban on alcohol sales?

I have not looked into it in detail. I can't say. Perhaps it has lessened partying in some form. In some way, people have also felt that the virus has not gone anywhere, it is back among us. And perhaps they do not go to work when ill.

But I would certainly not be thrilled by a low number of new cases on some days.

You do not see a trend?

Yes. It is great that recent days have brought less new cases, but there have been no changes in Ida-Viru County, when looking at the numbers. New cases are still coming in, luckily to known outbreaks, there are no new outbreaks. But I think this should be monitored carefully and no conclusions should be drawn from a small decrease, nor a small increase.

How would you compare Estonia's situation to that of Latvia, where the increase over the last weeks has been even more powerful?

Every nation has their own course of infection. No country has been left untouched. In spring, I was asked many times why our situation is not like Switzerland's. Now none of us would want to be like Switzerland. And Latvia has their course, Finland has theirs.

There is no recipe here, what works in Latvia might not work for Estonia and vice versa. All countries must look at what is the correct path for their country.

And we have clearly declared in Estonia that our goal is to keep the level of infection at a low enough rate that our healthcare system would not overheat and would be able to endure coronavirus patients but would also be available for every other disease.

I am quite certain that Latvia will get their outbreak under control. A large-scale infection likely took place and they are trying to get things back under control currently.

Latvia has seen a recent trend of infections with a record 137 new cases diagnosed on Friday, October 9. The number of hospitalized patients is also increasing, according to Latvian public broadcaster LSM - ed.

Can we say that even while countries like Estonia, Latvia and Finland have established similar restrictions and conditions, chance plays a large part in the virus spreading?

No, I would not want to say it is up to chance. There are no major cities in Estonia. Tallinn is a large city, but not a major city.

If we look at countries currently in the most trouble - Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands - people there live in much more densely populated regions than in Estonia. It is possible that Estonia's, Latvia's and Finland's peculiarity against other mid-European countries and regions is that our population density is much lower.

We are a smaller country and our Health Board has done a super job. Many countries are saying they just can not monitor contacts and that is understandable, of course.

For these large countries to have this many new cases, they just can not keep up with monitoring all contacts. It seems to me that here in Estonia, our Health Board has done an excellent job with that.

Can you give an assessment as to why the virus has spread in schools in Latvia and Finland, but not as much in Estonia?

When the virus is spreading in schools, it moreso shows that it is spreading in the community. We can see that well in Estonia that the virus is spreading in communities where there are more infections within the community.

For example, in Ida-Viru County, there have been infections discovered in quite a few schools, but in our regions of less infection spreading, it has not been discovered in schools.

I would like to add that the prophylactic closure of schools is certainly not great practice for spread alleviation. The infection is still brought to schools from the community. This shows that it is spreading in the communities and not necessarily the school.

Yes, schools have students and teachers in tight contact, but schools are brought up as extra, workplaces also go under the name "workplace". Looking at Tallinn, there have not been more outbreaks in schools than in workplaces.

Starting this week, travel restrictions are less strict than ever. How do you assess this, could there be more cases incoming?

The [government's] scientific council has always said that direct flights are much safer than connecting flights and actually reasonable. There is no reason to test someone arriving from a country with a much smaller level of infection than in Estonia. We have also set up a decent system at the airport. People can test there as well. It is probably safe enough to allow travelers in from places where the infection rate is lower than in Estonia.

But we must remember that it is a local disease. Perhaps some countries' infection rate might be low, but the person might come from a region where the rate is high. The next stage could be that we will start looking at specific regions, not the entire country.

And how do you estimate the viral situation going forward?

The current situation is calmer but we must not lose vigilance for a minute. All these things we have learned - don't come to work when you are ill, wash your hunds, wear a mask in closed rooms where distancing is hard to maintain - we should not forget those.

And if people are travelling and coming from regions of high infection rates, I recommend them to go through testing at the airport to confirm they are not bringing in the virus. If a covid-positive person is in someone's family, then the family must go over how to stop it from spreading to older people and to people working in high-risk places, such as hospitals and care homes.

For those with mild symptoms: please do not go to work and get tested. Confirm that you have not been in contact with anyone. And only if your test is negative and you have discussed with your family physician that you do not have the coronavirus, go back to work.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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