New restrictions seem unavoidable

Loora-Elisabet Lomp
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik, Director General of the State Agency of Medicines Kristin Raudsepp and Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma.
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik, Director General of the State Agency of Medicines Kristin Raudsepp and Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma. Photo: Madis Veltman

The government is set to discuss new coronavirus measures on Thursday that include changing the opening hours of restaurants, bars and pubs, tougher social distancing rules and new hobby activity restrictions. Supervision of compliance with the obligation to wear a mask will also be discussed.

Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center Party) said that it will be discussed whether restaurants, bars and pubs should be closed at 10 p.m. Cutting the maximum number of public event participants, limiting hobby and sporting activities and closing movie theaters and theaters for a while will also be considered.

Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma said at the COVID-19 situation press conference that while the virus hardly spreads in theaters and cinemas, people tend to forget about the 2+2 proximity rule when queuing for their coats after the show.

Infection rate going up

Härma said it is worth considering that one-third of newly diagnosed people do not know where they caught the virus. “They say that they have been to the movies, theater and taken public transport,” Härma explained, adding that bars and night clubs staying active despite restrictions is perceived as a problem. “We can see schemes. Establishments sending invitations to closed groups of people,” she described. The expert added that infections in bars do not depend on the season and people catch the virus there in spring, summer and fall.

Professor of mathematical statistics with the University of Tartu, member of the government’s COVID-19 scientific council Krista Fischer said that research suggests limiting even smaller gatherings is very effective. “We could suspend adults’ hobby activities until Christmas,” she said. She gave the example of choirs that often have members from different walks of life. It is enough for one of them to introduce the virus that will then make its way to family members and workplaces of others. Fischer said it could also impact companies that might be forced to close doors if they get a COVID-19 outbreak among staff.

Head of the scientific council, virology professor Irja Lutsar highlighted entertainment establishments: night clubs, bars, pubs etc. Lutsar said that last week’s restrictions are yet to demonstrate their effect. “It is a slow disease. We need to give these restrictions time to work,” she said, explaining that too many people expect restrictions to be reflected in statistics right away.

Fischer said that no major conclusions can be drawn based on recent data because while new cases numbered 524 on Wednesday, they only came to 191 the day before. “The number today (yesterday – ed.) will provide more clarity, while we also need to consider regional peculiarities,” Fischer said, pointing out that the case rate per 100,000 residents exceeds 700 in Ida-Viru County. “But the case rate has also spiked in Tartu County, leaving us pondering how to slow it down.”

Mari-Anne Härma said that a third of people with cold symptoms have COVID-19. “What this means is that every third person exhibiting symptoms is coronavirus positive,” she explained, adding that the Health Board recommends maintaining social distance, working remotely if possible and turning to one’s family doctor even in the case of mild symptoms. “Our testing capacity is just fine and people do not need to worry about that,” she said.

Tanel Kiik added that the case rate continues to grow and that problems are mounting in the hospital system alleviating which requires everyone’s contribution. “We should not be holding parties,” Kiik emphasized.

Views differ on remote learning

The council has also discussed the matter of schools on which its members disagree. “We have two weeks until the Christmas break, which is why upper basic school grades could also be switched to remote study,” Krista Fischer said. She believes the approach could be regional, with Harju, Ida-Viru and Tartu county students sent home.

“We are past Latvia, Spain, Belgium and Russia. Sweden and Italy are just around the bend – what are we waiting for?” Andres Merits, professor of applied virology at the University of Tartu and member of the council, agreed. He added that while he is usually against restrictions, a tougher approach is needed now. He also wants the upper grades in basic school to switch to remote learning.

However, Irja Lutsar said that contact study is necessary. “Remote learning is not equally accessible to all children. We are thinking of all Estonian children, including those of modest means,” Lutsar explained in terms of why basic schools have not been sent to study from home.

The Wednesday press conference also produced one piece of good news. Director General of the State Agency of Medicines Kristin Raudsepp said that Estonia is set to take delivery of a coronavirus vaccine in January. She added that the arrival of the first doses of the vaccine will not be enough to remedy the situation as not everyone might develop immunity right away.