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Grmek Košnik: "We have to be prepared to live with these measures for some time."

The press conference was attended by Irena Grmek Košnik, a representative from the Kranj Regional Unit of the National Institute of Public Health. Maja Bratuša presented the epidemiological situation in the country.

Ms Grmek Košnik said the situation in the country continues to improve. The seven-day average of confirmed cases is approaching the level for transition to the green phase, which is set in the roadmap for easing measures at an average of 300 infections in the last seven days. Today, this average stands at 309 infections.

Five Slovenian statistical regions are currently in the yellow phase: Primorsko-notranjska, Osrednjeslovenska, Jugovzhodna Slovenija, Obalno-kraška and Zasavska. The other seven statistical regions are already in the green phase. The number of active cases of COVID-19 infection is also in decline. There are currently 5,360 active cases in the country. This is certainly also due to the growing number of people vaccinated against COVID-19. Thus far, 633,571 people have received their first dose of vaccine and 341,055 have been fully vaccinated. Yesterday, a total of 3,558 PCR tests and 44,113 rapid antigen tests were conducted. The PCR tests confirmed 326 new infections. The situation in hospitals is also slowly improving, Ms Bratuša emphasised. Today, 295 beds are occupied in COVID-19 wards, of which 92 are in intensive care units. Yesterday, 20 new patients were admitted to hospitals, 38 people were discharged and three people lost their lives.

The situation in Europe and in Slovenia is improving

Ms Grmek Košnik presented the epidemiological situation in the world, Europe and Slovenia. The World Health Organization reported 167 million confirmed cases of infection and 3.5 million deaths as of 24 May 2021.

The United States has recorded 66 million infections, Europe 54 million, Southeast Asia 30 million, the Middle East nearly 10 million, Africa 3.5 million and the Western Pacific nearly 3 million. During this period, the WHO reported 1.6 million deaths in the United States, 1.1 million in Europe, 372 thousand in Southeast Asia, 86 thousand in Africa and 43 thousand in the Western Pacific. According to experts, the number of deaths is two to three times higher than reported. The encouraging information is that a billion and a half doses of vaccines were used during this period, highlighted the NIPH representative. The situation in Europe continues to improve. In several countries, many indicators show a stable or downward trend. The absolute values of several indicators, including hospital and ICU occupancy, remain high, however, indicating continued widespread transmission. By the end of last week, 34.2 percent of the European population over the age of 18 had received the first dose of vaccine, and this number keeps increasing.

Infection rates are rising in two countries, Denmark and Greece, but are mostly decreasing across Europe. Infection rates depend on several factors, including the level of testing. Denmark currently has the highest level of testing, followed by Cyprus, Greece and the Czech Republic. Among the 22 countries with a high 14-day mortality rate from COVID-19 (at least 10 per million), an increase was observed in Latvia. On the other hand, a stable or downward trend in mortality can be observed in 22 countries over a period of eight weeks.

The seven-day averages of confirmed cases by region (per 100,000 inhabitants) show that Slovenia is also slowly transitioning from the yellow to the green phase. As gaps between infection curves, which are based on the seven-day averages by region, are growing smaller, the whole country is moving together towards the green phase. The map of municipalities showing the numbers of infections in the last seven days is turning increasingly yellow. The most likely source of infection remains a local source. As Slovenia is approaching the green phase, Ms Grmek Košnik emphasised that, according to the roadmap for easing measures to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, it is planned that the country will move to the green phase when the number of daily cases drops below 300.

Looking ahead: Scenarios for the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic was met with different responses across countries. There have been remarkable advances in science relating to the understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the development of COVID-19 vaccines. However, there is still some uncertainty. According to Ms Grmek Košnik, what happens in the future will depend on:

  •  measures and compliance therewith;
  • the decision of governments on how to respond to the pandemic;
  • progress in vaccine development and treatment;
  • the science that focuses on how to end the pandemic and learning how to reduce the impacts of future zoonoses;
  • the extent to which the international community can unite in efforts to control COVID-19.

We now know that only sufficient vaccination coverage (60 percent or more of the population) offers long-term protection and that it is very risky to abandon measures such as wearing masks, social distancing, ventilation of indoor spaces and hand hygiene too early.

Countries, communities and individuals have to be prepared to live with these measures for some time, which allow us to live a relatively normal life, emphasised the representative of the NIPH.

SARS-CoV-2 will probably never be eradicated globally, because it has animal reservoirs and because full immunity is impossible to achieve. Therefore, no country is safe until all countries are safe, emphasised Ms Grmek Košnik, who added that only a global approach to vaccine supply can return us to our previous way of life.

The novel coronavirus will probably never be eradicated globally, so we have to develop strategies to tackle endemic diseases in the long term. Of several possible scenarios, Ms Grmek Košnik mentioned two:

  • Scenario 1: The new generation of COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against all new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Virus control will be effectively implemented in all countries, achieving global control.
  • Scenario 2: Occurrence of SARS-CoV-2 variants with the ability to evade vaccine immunity. Rich countries are likely to respond with rapid production of adapted vaccines, while immunisation and national control will have to be continuous. The rest of the world, which would not be able to adapt so quickly, will face recurring waves of the disease.

Pandemics always end

Nevertheless, pandemics always end, said Ms Grmek Košnik. At some point, this virus too will join the handful of human coronaviruses that cause colds. The experience from the last four pandemics shows that viruses transition from pandemic agents to endemic sources of disease within one and half to two years after their emergence. However, all these pandemics were influenza pandemics. The different pathogen we are witnessing now could mean a new pattern.

In conclusion, the NIPH representative stressed that, although the epidemic situation is improving, the epidemic is not over yet. Measures must continue to be respected, and Ms Grmek Košnik concluded by encouraging people to get vaccinated.