Scientific council head: Schools should be first to exit restrictions

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Irja Lutsar. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Head of the government's advisory scientific council Irja Lutsar is careful when discussing coronavirus restrictions and emphasizes that coronavirus spread indicators have not actually gotten much better in Estonia. Lutsar noted that schools should be among the first to open once again, especially in regions with lower infection indicators.

It is clear that no restrictions will be eased before April 26. But should primary school (grades 1-4) be allowed back to school on April 26, Monday, the day after the school break?

Yes, schools will certainly among the first to open. How exactly and which grades - this still requires discussion and we must see what will happen here in the next two weeks. But yes, schools, especially in regions where infections are relatively low. I am talking about the islands - Saaremaa and Hiiumaa - but also southern Estonia. But we must still see what will happen first.

Because there is no reason to keep children at home in the smaller schools in Saaremaa and southern Estonia. However, for Tallinn and northern Estonia in general, with its high infection rates, it is understandable that all students cannot be allowed back to school, but grades 1-4 perhaps?

Yes, if anything, then primary school and smaller children. Yes, small schools in southern Estonia, where there are not too many students. We are currently entering a season where windows can be opened during class and there is much more ventilation than in January. The scientific council is very worried as education is suffering.

But infection rates are still high in certain regions, we will see what happens in two weeks.

Could easing restrictions also affect hobby education, especially outdoors? Currently, only individual training or 2+2 training can be conducted outdoors. Considering that weather is completely different from February, could training be conducted in larger groups going forward?

Yes, we also discussed it. With children going back to school, many training sessions and hobby education can take place outside. Since the activity levels of children are a big problem, once students go back to school, some classes can be taken outside - science classes, maybe even singing. Not to mention physical education. Yes, we must certainly take advantage of the improving weather.

Can other outdoor activities be opened starting in May? Not only hobby education, but if there is a cafe in Old Town with a terrace, can it be opened? Should we allow everything that can be done outside already?

We seriously discussed terraces and outdoor adult activities and we found that it is better to first take smaller steps - let's see what will happen with schools and go from there. Terraces and opening outdoor eating at some times of the day so people would not lose self-control is somewhere in the next round.

But of course, all decisions are made by the government, it is for the government to decide, the scientific council will not close or open anything.

There are also a lot of complaints from people who would like to start gardening but gardening and construction stores are closed. Should those stores be given an exemption, especially considering the season?

Yes, the scientific council has also recommended it. A lot of what can be planted in your garden can be sold outside, it does not even have to be sold indoors. We just discussed this [on Monday], that tomatoes cannot be planted in July. And many people have gardens and gardening is also very healing mentally because these year-long restrictions have not been easy to bear. So yes, gardening goods especially, they can be sold outdoors, there is no need to convene indoors.

So can construction and gardening stores be opened before April 26? What was the scientific council's recommendation?

Our recommendation was to do nothing before April 26. Because some stores have been able to organize selling these plants outdoors - drive-in or whatever it is - some variants already exist.

Our situation is still very fragile - even if numbers go down some or we look at the rate of positive cases - it has not gone down too much, we are still among the highest in Europe. So we must look at it very carefully. We still have untested people, certainly, that is why our indicators may look better than they actually are.

What is the scientific council's forecast, can we reduce infections in the same tempo for the coming weeks or will there be a plateau as there basically was during mid-January?

The decrease this week was lower than during last week and we sincerely hope that this is not the plateau where we will remain. But the plateau will eventually develop. It all depends now on how we can maintain this drop, so the R rate (per-person infection rate) would remain below 1 and even on 0.8, where it is currently.

The drop can then develop, but if the R will increase and reaches 1 again, where it was in January, the plateau will is here to stay and can stay on a high level. So, nothing has gone by yet - us having low numbers for a few weeks does not actually mean anything. Although the drop is very positive, I mean in Tallinn and Harju County, especially, where the decrease has been very solid.

The vaccination tempo in Ida-Viru County has been much lower than in the rest of Estonia. I see letters in the document registry at all times, where Ida-Viru companies turn to the government to vaccinate miners separately and to organize vaccination within work collectives. Considering that the older people there are careful, what do you think of the idea of making an exemption for that region. Ida-Viru County will otherwise be a bomb strapped to our leg because if we get vaccinations done elsewhere and indicators drop, the work structure there is different and there are many large work collectives.

We must keep in mind what the vaccines actually do. Vaccines avoid serious disease primarily, vaccines likely also avoid transmission. There are still very few of these studies done, the only one currently available - a study of Scottish households - showed that infections decreased by 30 percent in these households. Researchers themselves say that the percentage is likely around 50 percent, because people also receive the infection from outside their homes.

Still, these vaccines are great for avoiding serious cases and that is why we should not put emphasis on younger Ida-Viru County miners, who are also important, but rather on the miners' grandmothers and mothers, fathers and grandfathers to get vaccinated.

If it is critical for us to lessen the burden on hospitals and intensive care, which has not fallen too much actually, and to also reduce mortality, which has also not fallen much, we must first pay more attention to vaccinating older people. Then we will come down gradually.

If we look at successful countries like Israel and Great Britain, they implemented a strategy where they firstly vaccinated people aged 80 and up, then 70-79-year-olds, then 60-69-year-olds and so on.

We have gotten the vaccines' actual purpose mixed up. The vaccine was created to avoid serious cases, most prevalent among the elderly, hospital burdens and eventual results from these serious cases.

I am glad to say that our vaccine percentages, including the older generations in Ida-Viru County, have gone up efficiently. 25 percent of the 80+, 70+ age groups are now vaccinated in Ida-Viru County. So this talk of older people not wanting to get vaccinated is not exactly correct as well.

Culture establishments are already making plans and I have heard that museums would like to open in mid-May, for example. Is that realistic?

The museums that are outdoors - like the Open Air Museum - it might even be up for discussion since museums are not overcrowded places. But it is currently very difficult to say - it is still a month from then, is our drop [in infections] here to stay?

On the positive side perhaps, there are no hikes in Europe either, at least over the last week. If anything, there is a slight drop in Europe. Although the European countries that affect us have always been on relatively low infection rates. So, yes, we will see how vaccination numbers will go and we can get people vaccinated because last week was actually a very positive week when it comes to vaccinations.

Do you know what is happening in Lithuania, why are their infection numbers up again?

I do not know the details but we are always dependent on our neighbors. And the infection curve turned back up in Poland a few weeks ago and hospitals filled up again, there was a lack of intensive care places.

Maybe that has also affected Lithuania's situation. Although, if you look at a map of Lithuania, their infection bump seems to be at the border of Belarus. According to official reports, there is not much of an increase in Belarus. I cannot say what happened in Lithuania and Poland and why infections are back up.

There are complex factors here - maybe it is the British strain, maybe people were enthused because numbers went down and the coronavirus passed.

And Lithuania's strategy has largely been different to ours, they have vaccinated more younger people and we have vaccinated older people. If we compare with countries in western Europe, Sweden has vaccinated almost 100 percent of people over the age of 80, not to mention Iceland, Finland as well. Lithuania's strategy has been a little different in that sense.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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