Prime Minister: Getting virus under control responsibility of us all

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Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) making her Riigikogu speech Monday. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The coronavirus epidemiological situation is grave, the virus is still highly potent and it is propagating widely, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) told the Riigikogu Monday, ahead of the national holiday marking independence day on February 24, and on the same day a new round of restrictions came into force. While stress and fatigue with restrictions arae on the up, over time, there is more reason to be hopeful than before, she added, in the speech which follows in its entirety.

The new government has been in office for four weeks, and our government's main priority is to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. We have had to coexist with the virus for almost a year now. In many ways, this has meant striking a balance between closing down Estonia and keeping it open; of the health system's resilience, and the functioning of society. These are serious decisions, which affect everyone in Estonia.

I want us to be able to remain dignified in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Let's not make the COVID-19 crisis normalize in a point of contention between political parties. We do not need to make a scene in reaping the maximum political benefits from the coronavirus crisis.

Surely, last spring, during the first wave of the pandemic, the opposition at the Riigikogu (which comprise Reform and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) – ed.) did not display much of the similar stance that critics of the current [Reform-Center] government have done - perhaps largely the same people who were themselves in office one month ago (Isamaa and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) are now in opposition whereas they had been in office in the last coalition; SDE remain in opposition – ed.).

Those who charge the new administration with easing restrictions should be reminded that the decision to relax these restrictions was made by the Center/EKRE/Isamaa administration on January 15.

When did the current government take office? January 26 (Jüri Ratas (Center) resigned as prime minister on January 13, but the coalition remained in office while negotiations between Reform and Center went on – ed.).

So what has the new government done up to now? Following a proposal from the Scientific Council (the government's coronavirus advisory council – ed.), on January 29, we decided to harmonize restrictions nationwide (since December Harju and Ida-Viru counties had had more stringent restrictions than the rest of the country – ed.).

Down to the present, I believe that this harmonization, which meant much stricter restrictions for most Estonian counties, I believe, is justified.

I also believe that in a small and close-knit society like Estonia's, the distinction made in December was not sufficiently grounded. This probably provided an additional impetus for the virus to spread to previously less infected areas.

High coronavirus prevalence a major concern

The situation with regard to the spread of the coronavirus is very grave, the potency of the disease is still very high and the virus is propagating widely. Within society, stress and a rise in fatigue has arisen in coexisting with these limitations.

However, in the long run, there is more reason to be hopeful than before. Early on this year, the launch coronavirus vaccinations took place, which will allow Estonia remaining open to coexist with the virus' presence.

The government makes its decisions by monitoring a number of indicators, one of the most important of these being the capacity of the hospital network. 

According to Urmas Sule, the Health Board's (Terviseamet) Emergency Medical Manager the current capacity to treat coronavirus patients in Estonian hospitals stands at 755 beds, 67 of these beds being intensive care places. 

A total of 7.4 percent of the total number of [COVID-19] patients require hospital treatment. There are currently 525 people in hospital, and 26 patients on assisted breathing.

These figures are high, but if we are to find anything positive about them, it is this: Our medical system has been able to treat people in such a way that the number of patients on assisted breathing, and the mortality rate from coronavirus, has been low in Estonia; even lower than in Finland.

We have set aside €621,000 from the government reserve for the purchase of [anti-viral medication] Remdesivir, which will significantly alleviate the most severe course of the virus. 

In Estonia, 540 cases or 0.9 percent of all COVID-19 cases, have proved fatal; in Finland the same figure stands at 1.35 percent, while the EU average is 2.44 percent. It can be extrapolated from this that the testing system in Estonia is sound. 

We locate the sick quickly, and their treatment is effective, with many thanks to our doctors and medical personnel.

The high prevalence of the coronavirus is nonetheless a major concern. Since November last year, when the second wave arrived in Estonia, the number of positive tests per day has been growing strongly, and the share of positive tests has fluctuated between the seven-percent and 15-percent mark, per day.

A total of 895,345 lab tests have been carried out, of which 58,445, or 6.5 percent, returned positive. 

On February 22, 829 positive test results were detected: 14.34 percent of the total tests for that day.

Where are people getting infected? The coronavirus detectives (koroonadetektiivid: A recognized role – ed.) at the Health Board have determined that over the last month, infections take place primarily witin the family circle in 32 percent of cases; in 14 percent at the workplace, but a worrying fact is that in 33 percent of cases, the origin of an infection is unknown.

This demonstrates that there is an epidemic viral spread in Estonia, and the virus can be obtained from anywhere where social distancing is not in place, such as at shopping malls, on public transport, etc.

High levels of infection are exacerbated by individuals' decreased sense of danger associated with the viral spread. 

Residents' perceptions of danger have fallen steadily since the beginning of January, with 52 per cent of the population [in surveys] assessing the situation as critical at the beginning of February (compared with 75 per cent in December) and 31 per cent saying that the acute stage of the crisis is over. 

Add to that the risk group of almost 11 percent, who believe that the situation has not been critical, and that responses to it have been an overreaction.

Getting in control of the virus is in within the power of all of us, and is a responsibility for all of us. 

Research has shown that the most effective ways to control the virus are via human behavior and due diligence, i.e. taking care of oneself and of others. Only by acting responsibly towards ourselves and to others can we keep the infection rates low, and thus Estonian life as open as possible.

We all made such an effort last spring; we maintained social distancing, worked remotely, limited our contacts and stayed at home when sick. 

These were our success factors, and the reason why we were at the forefront of low infection rates, and were able to avoid disruptions in the medical system.

Despite the selfless work of medical staff, the healthcare system must continue to be shielded from overload.

We are also working to ensure that residents in care institutions can pass their days in old age in safety. I believe that people who work in healthcare institutions have taken it to heart, to achieve this.

The government has not deliberately imposed very strict and total restrictions, without following the path chosen by neighboring countries. 

We have put in place restrictions which are unavoidable and aimed at reducing human interaction in places where the risk of infection and spread of the virus is greatest.

We have taken a problem-based approach. We have intervened where there have been outbreaks, and addressed their causes. 

We try to avoid the mistakes that previous school holidays (Monday was day one of the school half-term break – ed.) showed us; we try to avoid the movement of people, and different groups coming into contact with each other.

When imposing restrictions, we assessed the impact of each regulation on both the economy and the populace. 

This is because, in addition to visible victims, there are invisible victims among us. 

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, unemployment in Estonia has risen to a rate of 8.8 percent; even to 14.6 percent in Ida-Viru County.

We do not yet know how wide the gaps in our children's education will be, which is why basic school exams are being made compulsory this academic year, yet unrelated to graduating school. 

Mental health problems are harder to get the measure of, but we are all feeling the crisis fatigue. For this reason, we have drawn up the restrictions according to experts and scientists

Weekly discussions with the Scientific Council and the Health Board give us the best possible and most balanced picture of the spread of the virus in Estonia, its causes and what we should do as our next steps. 

We will continue this effort, so that we can make decisions based on science and knowledge, assess the effects and keep our country open, and the virus infection in Estonia stable.

Vaccination planning could certainly have started earlier

Now turning to vaccination, which is an even bigger concern than the decline in risk perception. 

I have to confess that there have been more problems with vaccination than I would have liked.

One aspect is that there is a general vaccine shortage across Europe, but things could certainly have been better thought through, and vaccination planning started earlier. 

We already said, while in opposition in May, that the summer period should have been used to prepare for vaccinations. 

However, the previous administration decided to discuss the vaccination plan for the very first time on November 27, and the second time, on December 15. This all could have been done much earlier.

As you will know, there is a general shortage of vaccines across the EU. 

Permitted quantities and actual deliveries do not match up. According to the [Estonian] Ministry of Social Affairs, Estonia has so far received a total of 121,470 doses of coronavirus vaccine from three manufacturers (Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna – ed.) within the framework of EU joint procurement, of which 88,790 doses had been used as of Monday morning.

Front-line inoculations are taking place in hospital vaccination rooms and at healthcare centers. 

At-risk groups are being vaccinated at family doctor centers. From May, when the wider vaccination of the population is due to start, temporary vaccination centers will be added to this.

As of 22 February, 62,415 people have been vaccinated, which is more people than have been diagnosed with the coronavirus (since the pandemic began – which stands at 58,445 as of February 22 – ed.).

26,375 people have been vaccinated with two doses (i.e. completed the course – ed.). 

For people between the ages of 50 and 59, vaccination coverage stands at 12.1 percent for the 80- to 89-year-old demographic, coverage is 20 percent, and for those aged over 90, coverage stands at 19 percent.

I have instructed the Minister for Health and Labor [Tanel Kiik] that we need to increase the number of people vaccinated on a daily basis. 

In order to carry this out, we need to use every day, including weekends, to vaccinate at-risk groups, teachers, the police and others. 

The pace of vaccination has increased in recent days, with a record 20,322 vaccinations administered last week.

In addition to the above, the responsibility from each and every one of us is crucial. 

I urge everyone to take the opportunity, if your doctor calls you to be vaccinated, to do so. 

It is very disheartening to hear news that family nurses have been having to overcome enormous obstacles in persuading those who are invited, to come.

The more people we can vaccinate, the greater society's ability to withstand COVID-19 will be. Every injection counts.

Finally, I would like to emphasize once again that all our own behavior will have the greatest impact on the spread of the virus. 

I put it to the conscience of every individual: Reduce contact with other people and stay home. If work permits it, let's work from the home office; this will have a major impact on reducing the viral spread. 

If teleworking is not possible, be sure to wear a mask at work maintain social distancing.

This week marks the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia. 

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, the traditional large gatherings have been canceled, and I urge people to celebrate independence day in the open air and just with the family this year.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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