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TÜ study: COVID still spreading rapidly, people following fewer precautions

A government sign posted on a shopping mall door urging people to wear a mask.
A government sign posted on a shopping mall door urging people to wear a mask. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

According to the latest wave of the COVID-19 prevalence study being led by the University of Tartu (TÜ), the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still spreading rapidly among adults in Estonia. This spread is being fueled by people's disregard for precautions, which is now at its highest yet since the launch of the study.

A total of 2,104 people were tested for the COVID virus during the latest study wave, which ran from October 12-24. Of these, 6.2 percent tested positive, and 3.8 percent were still infectious at the time of testing, indicating that an estimated one in 26 adults in Estonia is currently infectious, the University of Tartu said in a press release Tuesday.

This figure has increased somewhat compared with the previous month. Of those infected, 70 percent have noticeable but generally mild symptoms.

Comparative overview of the results of 30 study waves, including the most recent lasting from October 12-24. Source: University of Tartu

An analysis of COVID antibodies revealed that they were present in 91 percent of adults, with antibody prevalence reaching as high as 95 percent in those over 65.

Almost all people vaccinated against COVID have COVID antibodies. Among those who are unvaccinated but have recovered from the disease, 80 percent have antibodies. Those who have received two booster vaccine doses, meanwhile, have a significantly higher amount of antibodies than others.

Willingness to get a booster dose is also highest among people 65 and over, with more than half planning to get one. By contrast, just one fifth of people aged 18-39 want to get a booster shot.

Risk behavior highest in study history

According to the risk matrix based on the number of hospitalizations, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in Estonia remains at the yellow or medium level. Over the last month, more than 200 people with COVID required hospitalization.

The results of the behavioral survey conducted as part of the study indicate that people's risk perceptions have fallen to their lowest level of the last two years: one third of adults in Estonia take no precautions whatsoever to avoid getting infected with the COVID virus. Careless behavior is especially prevalent among people aged 40-64, but also among young adults as well, the university noted.

Although the proportion of those who had had contact with an infected person increased last month, the use of precautions to stop the spread of the virus has decreased even further.

During this study wave, one in eight adults had been in close contact with an infected person, however 80 percent do nothing to prevent the further spread of the virus. This pattern is particularly common among unvaccinated people.

COVID rapid tests. Source: Alexandra_Koch/Pixabay

According to Ruth Kalda, professor of family medicine and director of TÜ's Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health and head of the prevalence study, the reduced risk perception toward COVID-19 is quite expected, as the current predominant strain of the virus is milder. She warned, however, that the Omicron variant of the virus may also cause severe illness in at-risk people.

"Therefore we should make it a rule to take a rapid COVID test following contact with an infected person or with symptoms of a cold, and stay home if the test is positive," Kalda said. "This way, we can prevent the further spread of the virus."

The COVID-19 prevalence study is being conducted by a broad-based research team at the University of Tartu in cooperation with Synlab Estonia, Medicum and Kantar Emor. It is the only study in Estonia to provide an overview of the actual prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the country's adult population.

Commissioned by the Estonian government, the study is funded by the European Regional Development Fund from the EU measure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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