TÜ prevalence study: COVID-19 infections in Estonia down by more than third

A year ago, in early 2022, signs like this one reminding people to mask up and social distance were significantly more prevalent than in January 2023.
A year ago, in early 2022, signs like this one reminding people to mask up and social distance were significantly more prevalent than in January 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

COVID-19 infections in Estonia are down by more than one third and the prevalence of COVID antibodies is increasing, according to the results of the January wave of the final COVID prevalence study to be led by the University of Tartu (TÜ).

A total of 2,179 people were tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus during the latest study wave, which ran from January 18-30. Of these, 3.6 percent tested positive, and 1.8 percent were still infectious at the time of testing, indicating that an estimated one in 28 adults in Estonia is currently infectious, TÜ said in a press release.

Almost half of those infected with the virus have no apparent symptoms.

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 virus situation has calmed down. This is confirmed, she added, by the decline in the number of COVID cases requiring hospitalization.

While the number of people infected has dropped, the percentage of adults with COVID antibodies has increased. As many as 93 percent of adults have developed antibodies, 3 percent more than last month as well as the highest percentage yet recorded in the history of this prevalence study.

According to Kalda, these figures suggest that the growth in the percentage of people with antibodies is attributable primarily to their having had COVID.

Comparative overview of the results of 33 study waves in the TÜ-led COVID-19 prevalence study. Source: University of Tartu

People's interest in getting a booster vaccine, meanwhile, has waned somewhat on month. At the end of 2022, more than a third of elderly people were prepared to get a booster shot; currently, however, less than one third intend to do so. Meanwhile, only one tenth of younger adults aged 18-39 are interested in a booster.

Going forward, primarily those belonging to at-risk groups should get booster jabs in order to strengthen their body's defenses, Kalda said.

More than 100,000 participants in nearly three years

The University of Tartu has led the COVID prevalence study since April 2020, when the Estonian university recommended the government gather evidence-based information needed to manage the health crisis. Since then, in the course of 33 study waves, more than 100,000 adults responded to the survey, and more than 80,300 were tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The prevalence study was conducted by a broad-based research team at TÜ 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.

Going forward, the Health Board will continue to monitor the prevalence of COVID in much the same way they already monitor influenza, RSV and other upper respiratory tract viruses. Samples will be collected in cooperation with family medicine centers and hospitals primarily to get an overview of the prevalence of various viruses as well as monitor the emergence of new strains.

"To assess the epidemiological situation and forecast hospitalization rates, we will use targeted sentinel monitoring, wastewater monitoring and sequencing, which provide a good picture of viruses making the rounds, their strains and their distribution," explained Kärt Sõber, director of the Health Board's Department of Communicable Diseases.

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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