Companies organizing Christmas parties despite spread of Omicron strain

Omicron strain spreading faster in cities.
Omicron strain spreading faster in cities. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The number of people infected with the Omicron strain is increasing incredibly fast in Estonia and the spread has also increased in Estonia. While the scientists are looking at new data of the unknown strain, more and more Christmas and New Year parties are taking place.

When in South Africa, the spread of the Omicron strain has stopped, then in Europe, the spread of the strain is only beginning. In the Northern countries with a higher vaccination rate than Estonia's, all infection records have been broken in the previous few weeks.

"The numbers in the U.K., especially in big cities, show that the number of Omicron cases are increasing by twice every day or even with less time. Extremely fast increase in the number of infected people in England, Denmark, but we don't know yet whether the South African scenario will repeat, i.e. the increase will slow down or it will move on to extraordinary levels, which we haven't seen before," Virology professor Andres Merits said.

The positive aspect is that the strain hasn't brought along a sharp increase in the death rate. Europe isn't wrestling with the hospital workload increase either.

"We can see in all three countries that mainly young people get infected with the strain, but we don't know whether it's the natural nature of the strain or it derives from the fact that the vaccination rate is higher among the older age groups or is it just a start of a wave, which is related to younger people. Again, we have a couple of weeks missing to receive the right answer. Unfortunately, I'm not sure whether we have a couple of weeks to wait for the answer," Merits added.

The Omicron strain has reached Estonia and doesn't only spread among foreign visitors, but is creating domestic outbreaks. One such example is the Tartu Karlova School where the school was sent on distance learning due to the spread of the strain.

The first outbreaks, in fact, occurred in Tartu - the people infected with the strain have been to badminton competitions and the Paulus Church Christmas concerts.

When the Karlova school family is sitting home with the fright of the Omicron strain, then several companies are planning their Christmas parties.

"Lots of events are taking place because we have nine safe rooms. People can be in their company, from 10 to 100 people or even on the whole floor or house. We have events with bands. Fortunately, people are still having parties," the head of the University Cafe Rete Kustassoo said.

In Estonia, companies are divided into two: Some have canceled their parties and gather at a smaller Christmas lunch, some organize a bigger party, but control the vaccination certificate and do rapid tests. Tech company Playtech has chosen the last option, for example.

"All people who come to the party can only participate when presenting the recovery or vaccination certificate. We ask everybody to take a rapid test before the party to minimize the risks," the communication manager of Playtech Kärt Kaasik said.

In Norway, the Omicron strain started at a Christmas party when the new strain was detected on half of the participants who we all vaccinated.

Playtech held its party on Friday, and almost 500 people showed up.

"I can't approve of that as a doctor. Indeed, risks for the spread of the virus at such events are extremely high. At the same time, we understand that it's not possible to live in solitude for three or five or 10 years, thus, we definitely don't want to say that people should stop their social lives," member of the government's scientific council Pilleriin Soodla said.

"When we look at the percent of how many people work at their office, then 80 percent are working in home offices. We can see that people really miss social gatherings," Kaasik said.

The scientific council recommends celebrating outdoor holidays with larger groups. The family of Tartu University Hospital, which has seen the pandemic the closest had a Christmas party in the yard of the Apparatus Factory.

In the University Cafe, almost half of those who were initially interested canceled the party. At the same time, the number of those who order meals to their own rooms has increased.

"There are also those who ask a lot about whether we disinfect, whether we have the certificates checked, whether the waiters are wearing masks. Only when we have confirmed everything, people have the courage to come," Rete Kustassoo said.

It is certain today that the disease is on the rise. Experts do not dare to predict how much the holiday season will increase the number of infected people. On the one hand, there are more gatherings, on the other hand, due to the school holidays, the infection among children may be slower.

"From the point of view of epidemiology and medicine, the virus does not know that it is New Year's Eve and we could make exceptions. It is a political decision how the Estonian state does it," Pilleriin Soodla.

Merits said that the Omicron may be the dominant strain of the virus in Estonia by mid-January at the latest. Although Omicron symptoms appear to be milder than the Delta strain's, this does not mean that the new strain is safer.

"Experts are concerned that if the wave intensifies very sharply and quickly, as it seems to be doing in England and Denmark, the rates of infection could rise very quickly and the virus will reach people with poor immune protection very easily. And even if it is milder, there will be a very short-term heavier workload for the hospitals and several members of the medical staff will fall ill," Merits said.

70 percent of Estonian adults have received two protective injections, and 73 percent of those aged 60 and older have completed the vaccination course.

"High-speed administration of booster doses is probably the best way to stop the virus, but the most important way to stop the damage caused by the virus is undoubtedly to vaccinate people who do not have immune protection," Merits said.

61 percent of the entire Estonian population have received two vaccine doses; 19 percent, booster shots.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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