Infectologist on Covid: We have developed an immune memory

Pille Märtin.
Pille Märtin. Source: Piret Kooli/ERR

Infectious diseases specialist at the West Tallinn Central Hospital Dr. Pille Märtin talked about the spread of infectious diseases, coronavirus and precautions on Vikerraadio's "Päevatee" program, finding that vaccination and recovery have left people with an immune memory that helps contain the virus. Where the coronavirus might go next remains a mystery.

Which infections are causing the most problems today?

We have moved into the lovely Estonian fall with all of its sniffles, coughs and in some cases diarrhea and vomiting. We're in a typical infectious diseases season. Next to the traditional fall visitors, such as the flu and running nose or rhinovirus, adenoviruses, with the occasional rotavirus and norovirus mixed in, we have been grappling with the now quite familiar coronavirus for the last three years. All of them are in play.

The coronavirus is making its way back into news headlines. Where do we stand as people and you as a doctor? What do we know about the disease, what are we prepared for? How are we wiser today?

We are a lot wiser in terms of how this particular virus behaves, what it does to people and what people do to it. What we still know little about is the way the virus develops. Let us recall last fall when the delta variant arrived that caused doors to be closed, events to be canceled and overwhelmed hospitals. The recent (omicron – ed.) variant of the virus is milder but also goes up against people who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid in the past – the delta or initial variants. Everyone has developed some immune memory that knows what to do with the virus. That is one reason we are much better off today.

What we don't know is where the virus will go next. Right now, we seem to have the omicron strain with its offspring and their offspring – one big happy family –and we can more or less predict what they will do. That if the mother and father are one way, there children will be similar. In other words, this family of the virus does not send people to the ICU.

How have we prepared for the next Covid wave?

We know to wash our hands. We know that we need to stay home more or less when ill, not run around. We know how to use masks, and even though not everyone likes it, we'll do it for our own benefit and that of others.

We have vaccines that have been used and tested on truly a lot of people by now and that remain effective. All in all, there is little cause to fear. But we need to be prepared for the virus to continue making people ill and putting them in the hospital. Not to the same extent as the previous wave and the one before that, but to some extent still.

What about complications?

Recent complications – not enough strength to continue breathing, poor oxygen flow, bacterial infections and pneumonia – are technically still there, but we are seeing them less often. People coming back from previous infections are only half-way there in terms of recovery.

Hospitals, including the West Tallinn Central Hospital, limited or ended patient visitations from October 7. Patients coming to clinics are given masks. Do we have anything to feel anxious about or is that just common sense these days?

It is what we've learned from Covid. We are weighing to what extent we should limit close contact between people on a weekly basis as we are very much looking to avoid loved ones bringing it into the building and it jumping from one patient to three or four others.

It could also happen, and it does happen in every healthcare facility, whether in Estonia or elsewhere in Europe, that someone who is in the middle of the incubation period or who has a visitor and does not take proper precautions will come down with it. Such cases could come to nothing or they may end up with a fragile person being infected in the hospital.

Our decisions are not made lightly. People need to be able to talk to loved ones, it helps their recovery, while sometimes we need to protect those who are very frail.

How could we cheer up "Päevatee" listeners?

I would recommend stepping outside and taking in the sunshine. Keep your nose to the sun for at least ten minutes. Take joy in our colorful fall and the fact we have a real autumn and not just endless winter or summer. And that we have loved ones to hold. If you cannot hold them, call them, talk to them. Stepping back inside, make sure to wash your hands. It's easy! Eat and drink what you like but add a touch of honey or herbal tea to your menu. All are things that keep us healthy and happy.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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