UT scientists: Christmas not the time for Covid roulette

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A bottle of hand sanitizer at Tallinn's 2020 Christmas market in the Old Town. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The spread of COVID-19 has taken on epidemic proportions in Estonia and the virus can be picked up anywhere. The danger is made worse by the fact that 40 percent of those who know or suspect they have had contact with a carrier change nothing about their behavior, becoming a source of danger for many others, members of the University of Tartu Covid research team Ruth Kalda, Mikk Jürisson and Krista Fischer write.

There is something everyone can do to spare fellow Estonians, also thinking about the holiday season. Isn't Christmas the time for caring and good deeds? This is often reflected in gift drives or charity campaigns. This year, choosing the best present is simpler than it's ever been: give yourself and your loved ones good health.

All you need to do is observe seven recommendations: avoid contact, wear a mask, do not show up for work even with minor symptoms, stay home while waiting for your test results or if you've been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person, work remotely if possible and keep a safe distance from others in public spaces.

Spend Christmas Eve with your immediate family – the people you are with every day. Stay in touch with friends and relatives over the phone or digital channels.

These are simple but effective recommendations based on the worrying situation Estonia finds itself in.

Virus picking up momentum

University of Tartu scientists are constantly monitoring the virus in their surveys that makes it possible to evaluate its extent and draw up forecasts. We have a coronavirus prevalence survey, monitor the virus' presence in waste water and use mathematical models to forecast its progression.

The data we have suggests that the situation is much more critical today than it was in spring. As of December 6, roughly every 75th person in Estonia was infected, while it was every twentieth in Ida-Viru County. When the survey began the last week of April, only every 370th person was infected on average.

The stage of the study that was closed on December 6 showed that we have roughly 14,300 adult carriers of the virus. An increase of three and a half times from three weeks ago.

Those infected include young, middle-aged and elderly people. The fact that people over the age of 65 are increasingly being infected is especially worrying. Recent statistics shows that people in this age group need hospital treatment the most.

The survey headed by University of Tartu professor of epidemiology Anneli Uusküla confirms that the disease threatens everyone. Her survey looked at the health data of over 3,500 people who had tested positive. It turned out that the average COVID-19 patient was 45 years of age.

The number of infected people is growing rapidly and it is possible to pick up the virus anywhere. This is reflected in the waste water study. The prevalence survey reveals that half of those infected lack symptoms and do not know to suspect being ill.

Around 40 percent of people exhibit mild symptoms of a viral infection but do not know to suspect COVID-19, do not limit their contacts and continue their everyday lives. Smaller gatherings are still common, especially among young people.

A medical crisis the solution to which rests with everyone

Forecasts by Mario Kadastik and Krista Fischer suggest that 500-700 COVID-19 patients could need hospital care by New Year's. There are more people in hospitals today than there were at the peak of the spring coronavirus wave.

This leaves the entire healthcare system facing tough choices that do not only concern coronavirus patients but general availability of medical care. The latter is often a matter of life and death the postponing of which could spell considerable health damage in the future. We cannot allow things to progress that far.

Head of the West Tallinn Central Hospital Dr. Arkadi Popov said in no uncertain terms that 1,000 people needing hospital treatment for COVID-19 would no longer be a medical crisis but a disaster. Several hospitals are short on doctors and nurses able to handle the increased workload.

The resilience of the healthcare system depends on the number of Covid patients. The faster and more extensive its spread in society, the more people need to be taken to hospital and the more people will die. It is a disaster that everyone can help prevent.

Scientific research conducted in Estonia and elsewhere in the world has been enough for effective recommendations on how to contain the virus to be put in place. Regular surveys help tailor measures to the changing situation.

As doctors and scientists, we find that more information is always better than less and that knowing is superior to not knowing – even when the news is bad. The important thing is how to use knowledge to make better-informed decisions and how to communicate them to the public. Whereas it is paramount for everyone to be aware of their responsibility for the lives of others.

The virus does not spread on its own, it is being spread by people who come into contact with one another. Give your loved ones a gift they can cherish for years to come. Let us care for one another, let us gift health!

Seven recommendations for giving your loved ones the best possible Christmas present

1. Observe the 2+2 rule everywhere.

2. Wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

3. Stay home if ill or if you suspect you might have COVID-19 and are waiting for test results.

4. Stay home if you have had contact with a COVID-19 carrier and are ordered to isolate – you can protect a lot of people like that.

5. Avoid even small gatherings – the danger is still there.

6. Work remotely if possible.

7. Take care of your parents and grandparents. If you plan to meet with elderly family members over Christmas, make sure you are healthy. Avoid all manner of contact with other people seven days prior to meeting them.

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Ruth Kalda is a University of Tartu profession of family medicine, Mikk Jürisson research fellow of public healthcare and Krista Fischer professor of mathematical statistics and academician.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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