Experts: Omicron requires review of Estonia's coronavirus restrictions

Coronavirus testing station.
Coronavirus testing station. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The coronavirus omicron strain has created a record number of infections. Nevertheless, several countries have already decided to remove the restrictions, and in the last week, questions have been raised in Estonia about the restrictions and testing procedures in force.

"Compared to the original strain, Alpha, for example, it's a completely different virus. It's less severe, milder and in fact, at first, everyone thought it was weaker because it had mutated. Now it seems that it is a bit weaker, but the main reason why we see fewer infected people is that people have already acquired immunity," Toivo Maimets, head of the government's scientific council said.

While the current restrictions were justified by the need for hospital treatment, the current wave has not led to a large increase for hospitals. Compared to the Delta strain, the restrictions also have less effect.

"Let's see how the infection numbers are rising all the time. I think it speaks for itself and how effective these measures are," virology professor Irja Lutsar said. "I read on the website that the state is doing everything to prevent the spread of the virus, but I cannot say that the things that are being done at the moment are preventing the spread of the virus."

Lawyer Carri Ginter said: "If the broad communication is that we all get the virus anyway, then the same communication is not accompanied by the restrictions that should prevent the spread of the virus. It is consistently impossible to understand why a restriction still applies, is imposed or is removed. "

As the prevention of the spread of the virus has become more difficult compared to previous virus strains, Lutsar said, the coronavirus certificates do not fulfill their original role either. However, if the coronavirus certificates are intended to remind unvaccinated people that they are at risk of becoming seriously ill, they would do so.

"When these coronavirus certificates first came out, their purpose was to prevent the spread of the virus, and in the case of the Delta strain, that was very true. But now the situation has changed," Irja Lutsar said.

However, how can a safe environment be ensured for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated people in a situation where both can become infected? Both politicians and scientists disagree on this.

For example, according to the scientific council, rapid tests should not be used in addition to the corona passport at crowded events. As both vaccinated and non-vaccinated people would have to be tested to prevent the virus from spreading, it would be difficult to carry out rapid tests. However, the current organization raises questions from a legal point of view.

"I understand very well the people who go for the PCR test because at the moment it is not officially allowed to register a disease if you do not have a positive PCR test and there is a very big contradiction. However, we have to introduce all methods, rather than concentrating solely on the PCR test," Lutsar said.

Lutsar said some existing restrictions also raise questions.

"Even the fact that it's not currently possible to skate at the skating rink without the coronavirus certificate. This restriction could be lifted immediately without any major losses," Lutsar said.

Ginter said the situation that has arisen also highlights the issues concerning the law on the prevention and control of communicable diseases.

"The biggest problem at the moment is that the Riigikogu has given the government a very wide range of powers to act according to the situation and need for a limited time, but in this case, we have been in a situation where the Riigikogu does not intervene for several years, the government is acting alone and it's a serious issue in my opinion," Ginter said.

Although there are reasons to change the testing arrangement and restrictions, hospitals, as well as the scientific council, wouldn't rush with these decisions considering the delta strain is also spreading.

"Today, we have about 150,000 or 170,000 adults who are completely anti-immune, meaning they don't have any protection against the virus. What we can all do is be vaccinated with three doses and we take our parents and older relatives and take them to get vaccinated," Maimets said.

Arkadi Popov, head of the West Tallinn Central Hospital said: "I would monitor the situation today and do nothing with the restrictions that currently apply. At the same time, in two or three weeks when there are not more people in the hospitals, we have to admit that it's an endemical virus, which comes and goes."

Irja Lutsar does not agree with this approach.

"We are always postponing this decision. I also remember that January 11 was proposed, that we will reduce the restrictions when it is stable in hospitals. Then the condition of the hospitals was stable, but we still postponed the decision again. Now we are postponing it again. I don't see what's going to change here in three weeks now, I think we could start easing some of the restrictions now, or at least discussing it," Lutsar said.

Toivo Maimets confirmed that a plan is being discussed.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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