Baltic states gripped by Delta variant of COVID-19

Baltic states gripped by Delta variant of COVID-19
The insufficient vaccination rate is among the reasons for the rising numbers.
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius October 11, 2021

The Baltic states continue to sit on top of the EU’s COVID-19 ranking in terms of the 14-day COVID-19 case notification rate among EU member states.

As of October 8, Lithuania's 14-day case notification rate was 795.5 per 100,000 people, which was the highest figure across the EU.

On the day, with almost 659 cases per 100,000 people, Estonia was second on the European Centre’s for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) COVID-19 ranking; Romania came third with approximately 632 cases.

But Latvia was overtaking the other two neighbours over the weekend, with the country indicator rising to 871 on Sunday, October 10. It marks the highest number registered in Latvia to date.

Faced with the grim statistics, the Baltic countries’ public health authorities are struggling to explain the severity of the newest outbreak, attributing it to a variety of reasons, on top of which comes the mutated, higher-than-ever contagiousness of the Delta variant, the insufficient vaccination rate, and the even worse health of the Balts in general.

“The spread of COVID-19 in Latvia is so rapid that even a considerable increase of vaccination rates would not be enough to help. Instead, it would be better to adopt new restrictions for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, at least initially,” Latvian infectologist Uga Dumpis says.

He says he had hoped Latvia would be able to avoid major COVID-19 problems, but his expectations crashed and burnt.

“Many researchers believe the Delta variant is the final push of this pandemic and once the Delta variant has run its course, there will be no more problems of this scale," says the expert.

Dumpis mentions countries like Denmark, which has already lifted restrictions since their vaccination coverage is high enough.

He explains that for the fight against the Delta variant to be successful, Latvia needs to reach 80% vaccination coverage. Additionally, it needs to be even higher among risk groups.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done very well with vaccination. We have little time to speed up vaccination rates. But even if all people rushed to get vaccinated and infection rates dropped to zero, we would still have an abnormal situation in hospitals, because infection results result in hospitalization with a two to three week interval,” said the professor, adding that raising vaccination rates is not enough.

Roughly, 60 percent of Latvians have been jabbed with two shots against the virus, which is the lowest vaccination level in the Baltics. Around 70 percent of Lithuanians and Estonians have completed the two-shot inoculation cycle.

To cope with the severe outbreak, a national state of emergency has been declared in Latvia for three months, starting October 11.

The declaration of a state of emergency allows faster decision-making and allocation of resources while it is in force. It will be the third time the measure has been used since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and comes as Latvia is currently experiencing its highest level of morbidity, with specialist hospital beds approaching full capacity.

Measures taken will include among others: only those who cannot work remotely should work in person; across the whole public sector (including state and municipal institutions) there will be an obligation to vaccinate against COVID-19 or face suspension; COVID-19 certification will be mandatory in the private sector for specified critical professions.

To date, Latvia has confirmed 171,276 COVID-19 cases and 2,801 people have died of the virus infection.

Aare Abroi, Estonian virologist and professor at Tartu University, also underscores the super-high contagiousness of the Delta virus.

“In the case of the spread of the Delta strain this summer and autumn, the “average” infected organism produces at least 30 times more virus than a year ago, and in the worst case, a hundred times more,” he says.

"At the same time, the share of infectious viruses among the total virus particles is also higher. Compared to a year ago, when exposed to the virus under the same conditions, we receive on average approximately 50 times a higher dose of infectious virus, and this is a rather modest estimate," Abroi said.

According to him, the Delta strain is faster than the Wuhan and Alpha (English) strains when it enters the body, that is at the beginning of the infection.

“The average time in the chain of infection from one infection to another is about four days, which is about two days shorter than in the case of the Wuhan strain. And for 10 percent of those infected, the PCR test is positive as early as two days after infection,” the virologist said.

Handling the coronavirus outbreak, Lithuania reinstated mandatory face-mask wearing, but the liberal-conservative government promised not to introduce a new quarantine. But with the situation worsening over the course of last week, the government was seemingly hesitant what to do next.

An interim director of Lithuania’s National Public Health Centre, Giedre Aleksiene, says that the surge in new COVID-19 cases in the country is due to the high contingency of the Delta variant and colder weather, which ushered in respiratory viruses and exacerbates the situation.

“Half of the patients do not have an idea where and how they could get infected with the coronavirus,” she says.

Meanwhile, Aurelijus Veryga, the country’s former health minister, believes that the government’s poor communication of the COVID-19 vaccination certificate, the so-called Opportunity pass, has to be blamed.

“One of the most realistic assumptions I have is that the people with the opportunity passes in hand ceased to take care of themselves…The passes have misguided many, as the people were tricked by the promise not to need to wear facemasks if they get vaccinated and then receive the pass,” he told bne IntelliNews.

Poor Lithuanians’ health in general can be a factor too in explaining the spike, he says.

To boost vaccination, Lithuanian government has approved a proposal to offer a one-off payment of €100 to newly vaccinated seniors aged 75 years and over and those who take their booster shots.

Latvia confirmed 1,669 new COVID-19 cases and seven persons died of the coronavirus infection over Saturday, October 9, according to information released by the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

Over the day, Estonia added 1,068 new COVID-19 cases and three patients infected with the virus died, all of them elderly.

Last week, according COVID-19-related mortality, Lithuania slid to the third place, from the second, in terms of the 14-day death notification rate, the ECDC said. Bulgaria topped this mortality list and was followed by Romania.

Lithuania’s COVID-19 stats for the weekend are expected early on October 11.

The ECDC said last week that all three Baltic states are in the agency's top category, color-coded dark red and advised not to travel to them, in order to stop the spread of the disease.