Health minister: COVID-19 rates will fall from late March

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Health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) on Tuesday's 'Esimene stuudio'. Source: ERR

Coronavirus infection rates should start to fall in the second half of March, following new restrictions to enter into effect Thursday which mean effective lock-down, health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) says.

Appearing on ETV politics discussion show "Esimene stuudio" Tuesday evening, Kiik, who was health minister – then called social affairs minister – when the emergency situation was declared almost a year ago, said that: "We can already see the trend of infection has slowed down somewhat due to the (current) restrictions, but the trend is still for a rise."

Kiik told presenter Andres Kuusk that he had supported the introduction of stricter restrictions in the past, adding that Reform and his party, Center, in office together since January, were united on this issue.

Fault lines on some matters do not follow party divisions, he said.

As to numbers, the minister said the peak will come soon and will then be followed by a fall in rates and an improving situation.

"My belief is our (infections) peak will come in mid-March and then in the second half of March it will start to fall. The second half of spring will be much brighter, would venture to say," Kiik said.

The new regulations entering in force Thursday will run for exactly a month, until April 11, as things stand.

Kiik: Front-line workers getting vaccinations will help with infection rates

The fact that a large proportion of health care and nursing home staff have now been vaccinated will also help exiting the worst of the situation. Numerous outbreaks have been found in care homes across Estonia, with vectors often being via those who go off site, such as staff, or visitors.

Estonia's 14-day coronavirus rate per 100,000 inhabitants has been second-highest in Europe recently – Kiik said, adding that while public frustration with the pace of vaccination was understandable, this was mainly caused by technical and supply issues.

"Understandably, society has very high expectations [of the virus], with a demand that every vaccine that arrives in the country be used within 24 hours. This is not always technically possible; some vaccines need to be defrosted, transported, divided into doses, dispensed etc.," he said.

Estonia gets its coronavirus vaccines as part of a broader pan-EU procurement system which has met criticism for its slowness. So far, three suppliers, Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna, all with their differing manufacturer recommendations on lags between first and second doses, have been used from among the European Medicine's Agency's approved list.

As of Tuesday, nearly 106,000 people in Estonia had been vaccinated, with nearly 44,000 of these having received their second dose, according to Health Board data.

Minister: Most March vaccine arrivals will be used in first shots

Around 80 percent of March vaccine dose arrivals will go on first vaccines (of two) Kiik added.

"A very small amount of Pfizer/BioNTech, doses – about 20,000 – will be second dose cover. All AstraZeneca vaccinations are first dose vaccinations, since the product has an interval of eight weeks, and nothing bad will happen if this lag is prolonged a little more," he went on.

As reported, the rapid apparent spread in the so-called British coronavirus strain was a motivating factor in this week's restrictions, the third in about a week-and-a-half, Kiik added.

The British strain has become widespread and may in a matter of time become the predominant variant in Estonia, he added. This strain and the so-called South African variant is said by experts to be more virulent than other types. It was first identified in the U.K., particularly in southeastern England, late on last year.

Kiik: Vaccine distribution system has been rationalized

Kiik conceded that family doctors could administer more vaccines than they receive; the current figure is around 50,000 doses arriving with family doctors nationwide, per day, he added.

While the aim is still on inoculating at-risk groups, Kiik added, there will be no plan for overall vaccinations until at least May, while the number of doses received and administered should continue to grow this month and next month.

Dividing family doctor centers into five categories was behind regional variations in vaccines administered, he added, which also reflected the fact that Harju, Ida-Viru and Pärnu counties were among the most at-risk regions at the time.

This categorization had consolidated the doling out of vaccines and led to them being available to more medical centers, he said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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