Daily coronavirus cases could reach 1,000, which is why tougher measures are in order and locking down society altogether at some point cannot be ruled out, Irja Lutsar, professor of virology, head of the COVID-19 scientific council, told journalist Toomas Sildam on ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" webcast.
"The number of cases going up is less of a surprise than a decline would be. We cannot rule out having 1,000 new daily cases at one point," Lutsar said.
The virus is mostly spreading in Ida-Viru County and Tallinn, while it is also picking up speed in Tartu where an outbreak is occurring at a nursing home.
People in Ida-Viru County have always inhabited a different language and cultural environment than the rest of Estonia and getting the message across in terms of proper behavior is difficult, which is why many outbreaks in the area have started at gatherings.
"It is a major issue, how to bring that communication to Russian-speaking families. It is not just a matter of language as the culture is also a bit different there," Lutsar admitted.
The professor said that while she sees light at the end of the tunnel in that two vaccine manufacturers have filed for a sales permit in Europe, reaching that light requires several more months spent in a dark tunnel as inoculating front line workers and risk groups will take a long time even should Estonia take delivery of a vaccine in January.
"I believe we will have to hold on for over two months," Lutsar said, adding that the final stretch of the marathon is always the hardest.
She believes it likely Estonia could have 300,000 people vaccinated by April-May.
A group of immunization experts working with the Ministry of Social Affairs picked the groups to be vaccinated first in the second half of summer and the decision will not be left up to family physicians.
Lutsar admitted that locking down society akin to what Estonia experienced in spring is not out of the question, while it will not be done lightly. Nearer measures will cover ordering gyms, spas, cafes, hobby schools etc. to close doors. These are the scientific council's proposals the government is currently discussing.
"We need to pull people out of circulation," Lutsar explained, adding that people should hit hiking trails and run outdoors instead of frequenting gyms.
Birthday parties should only take place outdoors, at playgrounds in the case of kids' parties, while indoor playrooms should definitely be avoided.
People can contribute to avoiding an emergency lockdown by canceling visits and meetings with friends. Christmas should also be spent with one's immediate family.
"Restrictions need to be tougher. We cannot just sit around and look on as the case rate balloons and hospital beds are filled. Taking people out of circulation is very likely what works," Lutsar said. "These restrictions have not been thought up to harass anyone."
The capacity of the Estonian healthcare system at which planned treatment does not need to be dialed back too severely rests at around 350-400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Lutsar described as an endless discussion whether to isolate elderly people who are hit harder by the virus or teenagers who spread the disease. South Korea opted for the latter option during its two initial COVID-19 waves and was successful in terms of keeping the disease away from older people.
That is why Estonia has also decided to limit contact study in high schools as 15-19-year-olds are the most mobile and could easily carry the virus to elderly people.
Nursing homes could still allow Christmas visits
Lutsar is against blanket bans on nursing home visits. Nursing homes where the virus is already present cannot avoid it, while we need to consider the well-being of our elderly in other situations. Spending Christmas with their family matters a great deal. That is why visiting elderly people when wearing a mask and after disinfecting one's hands should be allowed under strict circumstances. Older people do not use chatrooms or Zoom vide conferencing, unlike younger people who can also eat their potato salad sitting in front of a camera. Decisions are up to each individual nursing home.
"Our older generation does not deserve it," Lutsar said in terms of isolating the elderly in nursing homes. "Let us put on our masks and figure out a way to safely visit our loved ones in nursing homes."
Editor: Marcus Turovski