Scientific council does not support lifting coronavirus restrictions

The government's scientific advisory council does not support the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, citing the rising infection rate, and believes coronavirus certificates will not be abolished on February 21.

At a briefing with journalists on Friday, council head Toivo Maimets said the burden on hospitals' workload has not reduced enough to relax restrictions.

"Soon our doctors will have been working in an emergency situation for two years and people can't stand it. Plus, doctors are also people and they get sick, so this is definitely a place we need to keep a close eye on," Maimets said.

He said if Estonia had a "very, very well-organized and very resource-intensive medical system" then lifting all restrictions could be discussed, but this is not the case.

Ruth Kalda, head of the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Tartu, said the restrictions have had an effect on reducing the infection rate.

She highlighted the superspreader event in Tartu during August 2020 which started in a nightclub or bar and later spread around the city. One person from the outbreak also traveled to several places in Estonia spreading the virus as they went.

Pärt Peterson, head of the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Tartu, added that the hospital burden is not the only concern. He said tens of thousands of people are self-isolating both with coronavirus and those as close contacts without.

"The easing of restrictions will, of course, increase this number even further," he said.

Mait Altmets, head of the Infection Control Department of the North-Estonian Medical Center and a senior doctor, said if there was an increase in hospital admissions due to coronavirus it would leave many other patients untreated.

"We also have other illnesses that need treatment. Slippery streets bring trauma patients. Will we then leave them home until Covid is over? We also need to find a balance in the hospital so that we can provide treatment for everyone," he said.

While several of Estonia's neighboring countries, such as Finland and Denmark, have said they will soon lift all restrictions, Maimets said this is because they have high vaccination rates and have reached the peak of the Omicron outbreak.

Lithuania has also said it will also remove restrictions, even though it has a vaccination rate similar to Estonia. Maimets called the country "an interesting exception" and blamed political pressure.

"I've talked to a couple of [Lithuanian] colleagues, they're not very happy about that," he said.

The council did not recommend introducing new restrictions but said a balance needs to be maintained.

"We have repeatedly said that we have medical problems on the one hand and economic and social problems on the other. We are really looking to keep this balance all the time," Maimets said. 

Coronavirus passport unlikely to be abolished on February 21

Coronavirus certificate. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

This week the government said certificates will be abolished on February 21 but only if, for the preceding 14 days, fewer than 25 patients with symptomatic coronavirus cases are admitted to hospital every day.

At present, this seems unlikely.

On Friday, 26 people were admitted to hospital and Mait Altmets, head of the Infection Control Department of the North-Estonian Medical Center, said the rate is rising. People also catch coronavirus in hospital.

Margus Varjak, associate professor of virology at the University of Tartu, agreed. 

"The peak has not yet been reached. We have not seen a decline from the peak, and there is a delay of about a week or two after reaching the hospital. After about a week, the hospital is then at its peak. Then the decline usually starts. Based on the experience of other countries," Varjak said.

Ruth Kalda said it is pointless to talk about getting rid of the certificates and vaccine passes exist in many other countries.

"And I certainly don't agree with what was reported in the media yesterday, that it's time to throw it in the trash. It is possible that it is, so to speak, [put] in the desk drawer, but certainly not in the trash," she said.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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