Coronavirus chief: Schoolchildren need not quarantine after foreign trip

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Professor Irja Lutsar. Source: ERR

Schoolchildren returning from foreign vacations who return negative on an airport coronavirus test after arriving back in Estonia have no real need to quarantine, head of the government's coronavirus advisory council says.

Schools are on their spring break in Estonia this week; returnees from foreign vacations were seen as a major source of introduced infections in the initial coronavirus wave a year ago, though the current restrictions – set to expire after week – require schoolchildren to self-isolate if they have been abroad.

Talking to ERR Monday, Professor Irja Lutsar, virologist and head of the government's scientific council said: "[Arrivals] should be tested at the airport first and foremost, regardless of which country they came from. There are relatively few strains of the South African strain in Estonia, and fortunately, numbers have not risen much. However, my concern is focused on a strain of the South African variant which has also developed a little more locally (i.e. inside Estonia – ed.)."

As to other reported virulent strains, such as those identified with Brazil or India, Lutsar said that (in the first case) this has not been seen in Estonia, though it has been found outside South America as a whole.

"So the initial rule of thumb would have been that we don't holiday outside Estonia at all during the current school holidays. However, if you have done so, you have to take a test. If an airport test has been carried out and it proves negative, and there are no symptoms of the disease, then I see no great need for children to remain at home. If they present with symptoms of the disease, then of course they should [quarantine]."

Children generally suffer the coronavirus lightly compared with adults, but there is also the risk of them passing on the virus to others, including at-risk groups.

Even during term-time, schools are currently closed, with distance learning online the order of the day.

As to when this might change, Lutsar said that this was a decision for the government. Her authority only provided recommendations, she said, though she did note regional differences in infection rates, and also the fact that teachers have been vaccinated (unless they declined a vaccination – ed.), plus the warmer weather meaning better ventilation can be had simply by opening windows, meant Lutsar implied nationwide school closure at least might not be appropriate now.

Lutsar also said that while coronavirus rates will likely plateau in Estonia, the current rates are probably still too high to talk about that stage (daily new cases reported by the Health Board have recently been in the low hundreds, whereas they were well over a thousand at times last month – ed.); Estonia's "R" rate has been below 1.0 for some weeks now, meaning overall the incidence of COVID-19 has not been rising lately.

"Fortunately, the number of cases has not increased very seriously in the south, and the numbers in Ida-Viru County (another long-affected area – ed.) have stopped rising, while Tallinn-Harju County is coming down quite nicely," shes said.

"But here and there, the numbers have also grown. This "R" indicator is quietly coming down, but not at a pace where this is happening every week or too. The pace may not continue so rapidly, but we still hope that these numbers will come down," Lutsar added.

Lutsar said that while the warmer weather is approaching, this should not mean a mass spilling out on to the streets, though talking about, for instance cafe terraces and courtyards, was realistic.

Health Board: Children subject to same quarantine restrictions as their parents/guardians

The government's scientific council and state agency the Health Board (Terviseamet) have often been at apparent loggerheads in the past, and Professor Lutsar's words on Monday turned out to be no exception – though the board did not actually contradict anything Lutsar, who by her own claims was making recommendations, said.

Board spokesperson Kirsi Pruudel told ERR later on Monday that everyone had to self-quarantine if they had symptoms, while if they did not, all still had to isolate if they had come from or passed through a country which required that.

As reported by ERR News, the foreign ministry updates its list of European countries, arrivals from which in Estonia must quarantine. While the number of white-listed countries fluctuates, the benchmark ceiling of 150 infections per 100,000 inhabitants for the preceding 14 days has remained constant for many weeks.

Arrivals from any countries with a higher rate – which in practice is most European nations – must quarantine for 10 days. While distinctions were made in recent weeks for arrivals from Latvia, Finland, Lithuania and the U.K., the system is now harmonized, and, Kiris Pruudel noted, arrivals must fill out a health declaration form, which would include countries individuals and their children had been in.

At the same time and despite gathering this information, arrivals from high-risk countries are not hived off and the board does not have an overview of arrivals from at-risk countries vis-a-vis non-risk countries, Pruudel said.

The main focus is a binary coronavirus positive/negative split, so far as the board goes.

"The police can contact people who have come from high-risk countries as needed. There is no percentage or quota that needs to be called, however. Our main focus is on people who have already given a positive test result," she said.

This article was updated to include the Health Board spokesperson's comments on quarantining regimes.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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