Covid council: Restrictions could be eased when hospitalizations under 100

Toivo Maimets (center, standing) presenting the new scientific council to members of the government.
Toivo Maimets (center, standing) presenting the new scientific council to members of the government. Source: Flickr/Stenbock House

Hospitalization due to Covid numbers are key, the council said – if they fall below 100 nationwide, the easing of restrictions can be lifted, the newly-composed government Covid advisory council said Friday, notwithstanding a pledge made at the same press conference to not state when restrictions should be imposed or lifted.

The presence of the Omicron strain in Estonia means that the state must move cautiously in easing any restrictions currently still in place, the council's new head added that he and the board also remains optimistic.

The new line-up of the body, properly called the scientific council, met the press on Friday, where it presented the 100-hospitalizations figure, and also talked about the vaccination program, the shortening of the quarantine period for close contacts, and its own communication with the government, state bodies and the media going forward – one of the sticking points with the previous scientific council incarnation.

Council chief: Government suggestion of five-day close-contact quarantine reasonable

Council member and University of Tartu doctor Ruth Kalda said Friday that: "In a situation where there are so many patients with serious symptoms who need help, to the extent that that also prevents other patients from accessing a doctor, is something we simply cannot tolerate."

In respect of the Omicron strain, the council's new chief, Toivo Maimets, a biologist and former education minister, said that the government's recent call for cutting quarantine for close family contacts was reasonable (this is a separate but related issue from the recent decision to cut quarantine periods for the unvaccinated to seven days-ed.).

Maimets said: "Yesterday (Thursday – ed.) the government came up with that [new limit], and the argument was precisely that in seven days, more than 96 per cent of people will have recovered from their symptoms. We risk not seeing only 3 per cent there," adding that a five-day quarantine period for close contacts would be reasonable.

Maimets: We will engage in PR but not set restrictions

Maimets also addressed criticism that his predecessor, Irja Lutsar, and her council – some of whose members have returned to the new makeup – met with over their perceived playing fast and loose with public communication.

Maimets said that the body would continue to communicate, but do so more gingerly.

He said: "The success of our work as an advisory body to the government is not judged by how great friends we are of the press, or how often we stand out, but by how well, quickly and efficiently the government and Estonian society can overcome this problem. All our communications is aimed at fulfilling this goal."

Confusion often reigned in the lead-in to new rounds of restrictions, as the scientific council would often announce recommended restrictions, which would be disseminated in the media and by the public and business as "fact" early on in the week and before the cabinet had had a chance to meet to discuss the Covid picture and the planned restrictions (usually on a Thursday).

This meant that by the time the restrictions were announced, on the Thursday for implementation by government order on the Friday, and actual entry into force the following Monday, in the normal run of things, nearly a week had elapsed since the anticipated restrictions were first announced.

Since the government's final restrictions sometimes differed from those "leaked" by the scientific council, this muddied the waters further still.

The replacement council seems so far to be working the other way round - in providing vindication of government proposals after the fact, as with the close-contact quarantine issue above.

New council members' contracts expressly contain clause relating to interface with public

Maimets said of the new council that its members still had not signed their contracts but would be doing so soon and that these contracts contained a clause relating to public relations.

He said: "We will not sign employment contracts until next week, but we also know the tasks that we are set to do and those which are not in our remit, within the employment contract. There is also a sentence in the contract to the effect that we have not been tasked with performing public duties."

"We are certainly not a council or a group of people who impose or remove any restrictions, since we do not have the legal right to do so. No one has given us those powers. However, when we are asked for our advice, we will give it. To this end, there are pros and cons, and those who have been given the power and responsibility to decide, namely the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Health Board, ministers and the government – they then make their decisions based on these arguments, and which are binding on them by law."

Council: Restrictions could be eased when hospitalizations below 100

At the same time, the new council was more than ready to opine on when restrictions could be lifted – at the point when hospitalizations due to Covid fell below 100.

As to the current restrictions as they stand, another council member, Mait Altmets, who is a senior doctor specializing in infection control at the North Estonia Regional Hospital (PERH) said that a figure of 100 hospitalizations was a reasonable threshold, one which represents the bed capacity for infectious diseases nationwide in normal times.

He said: "Where we shouldn't limit anything, in the hospital's view, would come when all those patients who need hospital treatment can fit in the beds slated for infectious diseases. We have a hundred of these across Estonia."

This would also allow scheduled treatments to continue unhindered.

"Our basic treatment activities would be guaranteed at 100 [cases]. There would also be no overload elsewhere, meaning no restrictions in terms of intensive care or staffing. But whether we will return to this type of a normalcy at all, I am not quite sure about," Altmets added.

Maimets concurred: "I think that the opinion of Dr. Mait Altmets is so clearly competent in this matter that I do not see anyone who would argue against it."

Council cautiously optimistic about Omicron

As of Friday morning, 229 people required hospitalization due to Covid, which may bring hope, another council member, professor Pärt Peterson, said.

"We have grounds for such cautious optimism. The consequence of the advent of Omicron may be that it really goes up, goes down, and with it we are all immunized," Peterson said.

Maimets added that the picture should be clarified soon. 

He said: "We are all looking anxiously at the rising rates of infection, and indeed, it will be clear in a few weeks' time whether or not this will lead to an increase in hospitalizations, as has been the case in South Africa and some other places like England and Denmark."

Continued vaccinations is also key, while rising rates and hospitalizations may have the effect of persuading some of the unvaccinated, he added.

"But it could also be the other way around. And then, of course, there is nothing left but to put in place restrictions," Maimets added.

The current restrictions are here.

The replacement of Irja Lutsar and some - as it turned out all - of the other scientific council members came as a surprise to the media and public when it was announced just before Christmas, but the change had apparently been on the table for some time, at governmental level.

The original council lineup was put in place by the Center/EKRE/Isamaa administration when the virus first arrived in spring 2020, while the previous coalition left office almost a year ago to the day.

This phenomenon might lead some to conclude the body is the sock-puppet of whoever is in office at the time.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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