While the start of the new school year is likely to bring with it a new increase in COVID-19 infections, University of Tartu (TÜ) virology professor Irja Lutsar says that children have strong immune systems and tend to have COVID more mildly, and doesn't consider it necessary right now for kids to get booster doses of the vaccine.
As fall arrives and children return to school in person again, an increase in COVID cases is all but certain to follow. According to Lutsar, approximately half of schoolchildren in Estonia between the ages of 12 and 17 are vaccinated against COVID, and many have had it by now as well.
"The immunity level among these teens is likely fairly similar to that among adults," she said. "We don't have very current data on adults, but the latest figures were around 90 percent."
The virologist recommends vaccinating against COVID to maintain immunity, but nonetheless doesn't consider boosters necessary for children yet.
"We can wait with booster doses for children who have either had [COVID] or are vaccinated already," she said. "Now, those kids who haven't done either or aren't known to have done either — I'd urge them to get vaccinated now."
Estonia's state immunoprophylaxis expert committee is nonetheless keeping a close watch on what the rest of the world decides when it comes to booster doses.
"As for other countries or the rest of the world, the recommendation has been given in the U.S., for example, to administer booster doses to children over 12," said Ruth Kalda, professor of family medicine at TÜ's Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health. "But looking at this and knowing that illness with the Omicron variant is still significantly more mild, that severe cases are rare and that severe cases are rare in general among children, then perhaps the benefits provided by a booster dose may not be as evident in young people after all."
Booster doses are currently being recommended for those with serious chronic illnesses.
Currently most prevalent in Estonia is the Omicron BA.5 variant of the COVID virus, which typically causes milder illness but spreads quickly.
Kersti Tamm, a school nurse at Tallinn German High School, said that school nurses are prepared to continue administering the vaccine if needed.
"We currently lack specific guidance, of course, but I don't think we'll be seeing any drastic changes," Tamm said. "We'll be continuing as we did in previous years, only perhaps more informed."
Currently, there are no plans to restrict children's movement in schools in Estonia, a decision Lutsar said is backed by several studies.
"I don't think it's ultimately beneficial to bar children from social interaction for the third or fourth year [in a row]," she added.
"As we know, it's very difficult for children to reduce contact; they're absolutely glued together," Tamm said. "But what I would do here is urge parents to monitor that hygiene requirements are being followed. That helps keep other viral infections at bay too."
The immunoprophylaxis expert committee is slated to convene prior to the start of the new school year to approve Estonian schools' latest action plan and guidelines.
Nearly 44,000 children through age 18 in Estonia have been vaccinated against COVID-19; of these, just over 4,000 children have also received a first booster dose.
Estonia has yet to begin offering COVID vaccines for children under 5.
Editor: Aili Vahtla