TALLINN - Portugal, Germany and Luxembourg are struggling with their summer coronavirus wave and the infection rate in Estonia, too, is to increase in the second half of summer, Postimees reports.
Hanna Sepp, head of the department for infectious diseases at the Health Board, told Postimees that trends in COVID-19 infection rate largely depend on different states' testing strategies.
"It is known that many states have significantly cut back on testing and have placed their focus first and foremost on at-risk groups and the elderly," Sepp said.
Sepp pointed out that data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) from June 5 shows that the infection rate has grown among people overt the age of 65 in three countries.
"However, as I said, due to small testing volumes, it may not give us the full overview," she added.
The Health Board official noted that the figures for hospitalization and intensive care provide more information than the number of positive test results. As at June 5, seven out of 28 member states had reported an increase in the number of hospitalizations or the number of people needing intensive care, according to ECDC.
Irja Lutsar, former head of the Estonian government's COVID-19 scientific advisory board, told Postimees that the increase in coronavirus infections in Europe should not cause too much alarm.
"It is completely clear that COVID-19 comes in waves spanning some six months. Our last peak was in February, thus we can calculate that in Estonia the infection rate should rise once more at the end of July or in August," Lutsar said.
"Generally, the increase in infection rate can be associated with traveling, large events and the BA.5 subvariant of the omicron strain, which is said to have a larger potential for spreading that the BA.2 subvariant of omicron that is currently spreading in Estonia," Sepp said. She added that there are no indications that the BA.5 subvariant causes severer illness. The latter subvariant has also been detected in Estonia.
Lutsar noted that BA.5 has indeed turned the infection rate up in Germany.
"BA.5 has developed from omicron. While the earlier [subvariants] developed from the Wuhan strain, then BA.5 has developed from omicron," she said, adding that the share of this strain among the samples sequenced last week was around 15 percent in Estonia.
"Based on data for Estonia, we can expect a small increase in hospitalizations in the second half of summer and we may move from level green to level yellow in our risk matrix," Sepp said. It means that the number of hospitalized patients would grow to exceed 100 once more.
"At present, we can forecast that the number of hospitalized patients will again increase to several hundred in the fall. With a new more dangerous strain emerging, the prognosis will deteriorate and the number of hospitalizations may reach 700 once more," she added.
With regard to fourth coronavirus vaccine doses, Sepp said that the corresponding decision will be made by the national expert committee on immunoprophylaxis.
"It is definitely an important point of discussion," she said.
Lutsar added that the expert committee is currently carefully monitoring the vaccination of at-risk groups.
"When we see a clear increase, the lower age limit for the fourth dose should be established," she said, adding that people not having received a fourth dose of the vaccine is currently being deemed one of the reasons for the increase in the infection rate.
Family doctor Marje Oona said that the symptoms of BA.5 are not very different from those of the omicron strain.
"As we know, the course of the illness can vary to a great degree from mild to quite severe hospitalization, particularly, if the person has not received any vaccine doses," Oona said, adding that the advantage of the BA.5 subvariant is that it spreads more rapidly. "This is why it is alarming -- the virus is constantly adapting to spread faster."