Appearing before the state budget control select committee of the parliament on Wednesday morning, Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) said that he is counting on family physicians to boost vaccination and bring the process closer to people.
Chairman of the select committee Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said that it is crucial that activities be put in place to save lives under aggravating coronavirus crisis conditions.
Kiik agreed with Reinsalu that the spread of the virus is regrettably extensive and is in particular putting a pressure on hospital treatment. "Unfortunately, together with the other Baltic states, we are at the forefront in Europe in terms of virus spread," Kiik said.
The minister said that the severity of the situation is illustrated by the number of people requiring hospital treatment having grown by as much over the past week alone as in the five preceding weeks combined. An increase by 20 to 30 percent has been observed in infection figures over the past weeks.
"Getting this growth to stop and turn into decline is crucial right now, and protecting at-risk groups is the most important thing," Kiik said.
The minister added that attention must be given in particular to the people who have neither been vaccinated nor recovered from the virus. For that reason, the government approved supplementary measures on Tuesday.
"I, first and foremost, have faith in our family physicians," Kiik said, adding that the government's restrictions announced on Tuesday are a clear message to the people who have yet to be vaccinated.
Kiik noted that the 70 percent target in the vaccination plan has not been reached as only 68.3 percent of the adult population has been inoculated with at least one vaccine dose. He said that he has great hopes for family doctors being able to bring vaccination closer to people.
The minister added that the Ministry of Social Affairs is in constant contact with family physicians, and that according to the latter, it would be reasonable to offer COVID-19 booster doses to the elderly along with the influenza vaccine. The necessary doses have already been sent to family doctors, he added.
"The administration of third doses of the coronavirus vaccine is already underway in care homes together with the administration of flu shots," Kiik noted.
Kiik: Coronavirus testing in schools not efficient enough
The health minister said that the previous organization of testing in schools was not efficient enough, which is why a new testing regime needed to be established.
The objective for minors is ensuring contact learning at schools and in order for this to be possible, rapid detection of infection cases and the infected going into self-isolation is the key, Kiik said.
The minister added that testing at schools, which thus far consisted of a rapid test and then a follow-up PCR test, is not efficient enough for detecting and isolating the infected, which is why the government on Tuesday decided that children that have come into close contact with a virus carrier must stay at home straight away until they have been PCR-tested and their test result has proven negative.
With regard to mass testing, the state is of the opinion that broader testing could be carried out occasionally to detect the infected and instruct them to self-isolate.
"Naturally, ensuring clean air at schools in also important; however, it depends on schools and local governments which devices are procured for schools," Kiik said.
The Estonian government approved in principle a decision on Tuesday according to which students who have come into close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus at school must undergo PCR testing starting from the fourth day since the contact and even symptomless students must stay at home until their PCR test result is delivered.
Vaccinated students and students who have recovered from COVID-19 will not need to undergo testing.
With the change, the procedure for ensuring infection safety will be expanded to also apply to pupils aged up to 12 who will likewise need to undergo PCR testing after a close contact with an infected person at school and stay at home until they learn their test results. As students aged 12 to 18 no longer need to immediately take an antigen test after a close contact at school, the overall number of tests will decline.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said that it is in the interest of the society that schools remain open during the COVID-19 crisis but also that outbreaks at schools be stopped as quickly as possible.
"The spread of the infection at schools is a great concern. While we know that the course of this illness is generally not severe for children and young people; however, they still fall ill and bring the coronavirus home with them where it can cause serious illness in unvaccinated families," Kallas said.
Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform) said that the past school year showed sharply how important it is for the entire school community to maintain a routine learning process in a way that enables to keep the spread of the coronavirus under control.
"One of the most important goals in the process of resolving the COVID-19 crisis is to keep schools open to ensure that children receive the best education possible and that they should not pay a heavy price in the future as a side effect of the epidemic by not being able to cope," Kersna said.
"Our educators, researchers, parents and, I, believe that the majority of the society are of the opinion that every effort must be made to keep schools open," she added.
Under the updated requirements, students can continue learning at school and participating in hobby education after receiving a negative PCR test result. The same regulations will apply to hobby education and recreational activities outside school as well as to youth work, students' sports competitions and sports and exercise events.
If a student is not willing to undergo PCR testing, they must self-isolate for ten days. All vaccinated students and students who have recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the testing requirement.
Simplified isolation without testing only remains possible for preschool children who have come into close contact with a coronavirus carrier in kindergarten or day care. This means that if a child in a preschool establishment experiences close contact, their health must be monitored and if the child does not exhibit any virus symptoms, they can continue going to kindergarten or day care and also continue participating in recreational activities in the same establishment. However, the child can only take part in training or recreational activities that take place outside their kindergarten or day care 10 days after their close contact.
Regardless of their age, a child or a young person must immediately stay at home after a close contact if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.
Kiik: Opinions voiced by EKRE politicians depressing
Kiik noted that several opinions voiced by politicians of the opposition Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) have been depressing.
When asked why Kiik has not resigned from his post as Minister of Health and Labor, the minister said that looking at Europe, ministers resigning has not alleviated the crisis anywhere.
Kiik underscored that the spread of the coronavirus is not a political issue and thus, political parties would do well to work together to resolve the crisis. He added that politicians should focus on contributing to resolving the crisis, and attacks against health care workers do not help pursue this goal.
The minister noted that several opinions voiced by EKRE politicians have been depressing during the coronavirus crisis because they should understand that every action and statement by politicians is monitored very closely in a crisis situation.
With regard to the anti-vaccination protest to be held at the end of the week in Tallinn, Kiik said that he does not plan to provide any explanations at the picket or even attend it.
"Holding a mass event where many unvaccinated people convene is definitely not a reasonable plan," Kiik said, adding that his recommendation is to stay at home and trust health care workers.
"We need to help promote a research-based world view," he noted.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste