TALLINN – Although the recently completed wave of the coronavirus prevalence study led by the University of Tartu on Tuesday showed that nearly 90 percent of adults have antibodies to coronavirus, the scientific advisory board advising the Estonian government would not rush to do away with the mask requirement, the daily Postimees writes.
Margus Varjak, member of the scientific advisory board advising the government on matters of COVID-19, told Postimees that the omicron strain and the omicron subvariant BA.2 emerged as early as spring 2020 in Africa. However, the split between the omicron and BA.2 lines emerged in the spring and summer of last year. The difference between the two strains is over 40 mutations, and in fact, according to Varjak, omicron subvariant BA.2 deserves a separate letter from the Greek alphabet.
"However, the spike protein is relatively similar between the two strains, so there is not much concern when it comes to vaccines -- the booster dose still reduces the risk of hospitalization more than 10 times in risk groups," Varjak said.
According to Estonian data, the omicron subvariant BA.2 is circulating in the extent of 75 percent. "The rest is largely omicron, there is very, very little of the delta strain left," the scientist added. "The problem with the wave of infection and herd immunity is that the omicron or omicron subvariant BA.2 themselves do not elicit such a proper immune response in the body, meaning less antibodies are produced than with vaccination," Varjak said.
However, people who have been vaccinated and have had omicron or BA.2 are likely to have good protection by fall. Similarly, those who have had omicron and have then been vaccinated.
"In other words, repeated exposure to a pathogen or its imitator (vaccine) improves the body's defenses. And in the long run, a strong distinction must be made between the need for hospitalization and a mild runny nose and cough. In the sense that the virus will remain with us for some time to come," Varjak said.
According to him, masks must remain for now. "In general, when countries start easing restrictions, masks are the last to disappear," Varjak said when asked if it was time to abandon the mask obligation.
He recalled that extensive restrictions disappeared in Estonia only recently and that, following the example of the United Kingdom, there is a risk that infection and hospitalization could exhibit a slight increase before coming down again. In addition, the researcher stressed that there are still more than 500 people in hospital and that those most at risk are still unvaccinated elderly people.
"First, we would like to see a decrease in the hospital load. It is likely the mask obligation in hospitals themselves will not disappear any time soon," Varjak said.
However, the Health Board emphasizes that the obligation to wear a mask in public indoor areas still applies, and the requirements for dispersal and disinfection must be observed.
"A mask must be worn, for example, in shops, pharmacies, cinemas, theaters, spas, at events -- in all public indoor spaces, where the nature of the activity allows it. The mask can only be removed if the nature of the activity does not allow it to be worn, for example while eating and drinking," Kirsi Pruudel, media adviser at the Health Board, said.
She stressed that coronavirus is still widespread in Estonia, therefore the obligation to wear a mask indoors applies.
"With a mask, you protect yourself and others -- it helps reduce the chance that a droplet infection will reach other people when you cough or sneeze. Everyone should wear a mask because you never know if you are infected or not," Pruudel added.