Irja Lutsar: People should be allowed to events if they test negative

Irja Lutsar.
Irja Lutsar. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

Former government scientific council chief virology professor Irja Lutsar told ERR in an interview that she considers it reasonable to allow people entry to events if they go through coronavirus testing, since the Omicron variant has changed the epidemiological situation.

It will soon be two years of the coronavirus arriving in Estonia. Our hospitals have had to live through some extraordinary times. But will we keep restricting entertainment and reorganizing hospital workflows every winter going forward? Is it really that complicated to add a few hundred hospital beds for infectious diseases treatment?

The current situation cannot be here to stay forever. There are always more respiratory diseases in the winter and I cannot really say if there are more patients hospitalized now than 10-20 years ago. We have had major flu waves and other viral diseases.

Hospitals must now think, because the coronavirus will not go anywhere and if we do need to create more hospital beds and where to put patients. And not concentrate them in only major hospitals, because coronavirus patients can be treated in county hospitals, too.

I cannot imagine us closing schools and our regular life every winter.

Should a pneumonia-like disease be treated in top Estonian hospitals, such as the Univeristy of Tartu Hospital or the North Estonia Medical Center (PERH)? Why can't smaller hospitals handle it?

I believe they can. I started working in the Võru Hospital some time ago and they treated pneumonia patients and coronavirus patients now.

We do not have critical level intensive care capabilities in smaller hospitals and they do not need it, either. That is done in major hospitals and there are not that many patients requiring intensive care. But oxygen therapy, fluid therapy and supportive care can be successfully conducted in smaller hospitals.

We have not seen nor heard of a concrete plan from the government regarding exiting the coronavirus crisis. Could the main content of it be avoiding restrictions and increasing hospital treatment capacities?

Those things should certainly be a part of those plans. We must reach a point where we treat this disease like any other virus, stopping close contact self-isolations, for example. Some countries have already lost the self-isolation requirement, such as South Africa and Belgium, if I am not mistaken.

Vaccines have done an unbelievably good job and we can now avoid serious infections. We also get more and more infections and hospitalized patients, but the situation in hospitals is completely different than a year ago.

The arrival of the Omicron coronavirus strain has changed the rulebook. The government must now decide who they will allow to events, cafes, gyms with rapid tests. Is that reasonable?

It is certainly reasonable in the current situation, we must begin putting society back together again. There are already events for vaccinated people being organized where rapid tests are used. In general, rapid tests should be used more.

And if the rapid test turns out positive, there is no need to check it with a PCR test, because we already have so much of this virus. False positives are unlikely at this point. But people going to the hospital should get a PCR test.

When could a decision of losing all restrictions come? When can we return normal life, like it was some three-four years ago?

This topic is discussed a lot in professional literature. Experts think regular life will likely not make a return, it will be a little bit different. The share of home office users will likely remain higher, especially in larger cities. That must also be a part of our exit strategy.

When could that take place in Estonia, after the Omicron wave passes? Spring, for example?

It seems like Omicron waves are not too long. Otherwise, no one could make a promise that there will not be another Greek letter soon. This virus will likely keep mutating and new strains can come up later. I believe it will be another few years before this becomes a completely regular endemic virus.

Estonia's infection indicators are going up sharply. As a journalist, I have seen how local municipality government leaders and hospital chiefs act in these situations. Local municipality governments want to close schools and hospital chiefs want general restrictions. What is the response to that?

I am also amazed at our enormous belief in restrictions.

But if we look at the UK, which did not close itself this time although their models predicted there could be up to a million new daily cases. They capped out at around 250,000.

What happened? The number of people getting hospitalized doubled, but the number of seriously ill patients, patients on ventilators, largely did not change. The existing immunity that the UK has achieved with vaccines and recovery provides great protection from serious cases.

There will also be more patients hospitalized in Estonia in the near future, some of them for the coronavirus, but some have come in for other reasons, although they are also infected with the coronavirus. We must seriously look at who comes to the hospital, who needs intensive care. Hospital numbers are quite stable for now.

Infection indicators are going up, because schools are conducting mass testing and this brings out more positives. But if most have relatively light symptoms, such as a cough and a runny nose? Is this an indication to close society? And what do we want to achieve?

But many people still have real fears of this illness coming for them.

The Omicron strain is not scary to a person with immunity. We have a lot of vaccinated people, we have had a whole list of people recover from this illness and we have people with hybrid immunity, they are vaccinated and have recovered.

Certainly, the Omicron variant is not too common among older people, but people are luckily quite vaccinated in care homes. I look carefully at Krista Fischer's analyses and they clearly show how the Delta strain is worse for unvaccinated people than the Alpha strain. We currently have very little data on what the effects of Omicron are for unvaccinated people.

But again, restrictions must always have a meaning, such as winning some time to get people vaccinated or administering booster doses. There is no reason to have restrictions just to have restrictions.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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