BNN ANALYSES | Amid COVID-19 spike Lithuania reinstates facemask mandate indoors, but opts out of quarantine

Linas Jegelevičius
Worried about a spike in new COVID-19 cases, Lithuanian government has decided this week to reinstate the facemask requirement in the country from October 1 as the proven measure to stem the virus spread and advised to go back to working remotely for now.
Lithuania added 1,806 new coronavirus infections and 19 deaths from COVID-19 over September 29, the country’s statistics office said on Thursday morning.
Sixteen fatalities were either not vaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
Yet the liberal-conservative government shied away from imposing a new country-wide quarantine.
«On the opposite: we want to avoid economic activity restrictions and any restrictions on the public life, provided that people get vaccinated,» PM Ingrida Šimonytė said.
However, some government critics point out that the injunction to mandatorily wear facemasks indoors constitutes to a clear form of quarantine.
Government says in response that it «considered» whether a quarantine had to be introduced in the country in order to decree mandatory mask-wearing, but decided it was not needed.
But Aurelijus Veryga, the country’s former Health minister, who has spoken out against tightening the public health regime, now says that the decision not to declare quarantine seems «strange» to him.
«…It seems the PM expects to receive some political dividends from not imposing quarantine…I cannot also rule out that the government endeavours to save that way too – not pay medics extra bonuses for their work in the extreme situation,» Veryga said.
In any way, wearing facemasks is a very proper thing to do now, he emphasised.
The requirement to have a face covering on in closed public settings will not apply to people who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons, where a service cannot be provided to a customer wearing a mask, and while eating and drinking in bars, cafes or restaurants.
At schools, facemasks remain mandatory for all students except primary classes, according to the prime minister.
Face coverings will also be compulsory at work when people work in close contact in closed spaces.
The PM also «strongly» recommends that people work remotely where possible for now.
Lithuania is one of the first Eastern and Central European countries to resort to tightening the public health rules amid the worsening COVID-19 situation.
Hospitals in the country were hurriedly vacating wards and entire sections to accommodate COVID-19 patients.
As of Thursday morning, the total number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has risen by 30 over the past 24 hours to 1,201.
An interim director of Lithuania’s National Public Health Centre, Giedrė Aleksienė, contemplates that the surge in new COVID-19 cases 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 said.
Meanwhile, Veryga believes that 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 BNN.
Underlying chronic illnesses that plague many Lithuanians are also to be blamed for the COVID-19 increase, he underscored.
«Alas, our health tends to be worse than of others in Europe,» he added.
Vaccination and booster shot hesitancy, as well disappointment from failure to reach collective immunity against the coronavirus, are factors to be considered for the surge, too.
«We certainly see a clear disappointment that, with the vaccination rate being that high, the so-called herd immunity has been reached. This is something that has been widely expected. Even more sceptic many are towards the getting a booster shot,» a public health official in the Klaipėda affiliate of the National Public Health Centre, told BNN.
Professor Aurelija Žvirblienė from Vilnius University’s Institute of Biotechnology, says uncertainty might be causing public doubts on booster shots as it’s not clear right now whether such shots will be recommended for everyone and when.
«When we started vaccinating people, people were mostly told about two doses or one doze in the Johnson & Johnson case, and I can understand that some people might feel as if tricked that they were told one thing, and now they are being told the other,» the professor told Lithuanian media.
Žvirblienė hopes the percentage of people with favourable views on booster shots will rise once more people who have received them increases and they will become a more common and known thing.
Currently, 67.7 percent of the Lithuanian population is immune to COVID-19, either through vaccination or infection, but the number is still insufficient to control the spread of the virus, according to the government. In all, Lithuania has vaccinated 62.4 percent of its population with at least one shot. The country’s 14-day coronavirus infection rate has risen to 673.4 new cases per 100,000 people.
By now, Lithuania has reported 329 868 COVID-19 cases since the outbreak of the virus in spring of 2020. In all, 4 965 Lithuanian nationals have died of the virus.
Some 42.4 percent of adults in Lithuania would get booster shots against the coronavirus, which is lower than the existing number of people vaccinated with at least one doze, a new survey by Vilmorus, a Lithuanian pollster, says.