April 2, 2020 / 6:53 PM / 2 months ago

REFILE-Military field hospital opens on Estonian virus-hit island

(Refile to correct second instance of surname in paragraph 11)

By Tarmo Virki

SAAREMAA, Estonia, April 2 (Reuters) - A military field hospital opened on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia on Thursday to treat a rush of coronavirus cases following a volleyball game with an Italian team in March.

About 1% of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants are confirmed to have contracted the disease, about double the official rate of infection in the Italian region of Lombardy, the southern European nation’s most-hit area.

Local authorities on Saaremaa say the numbers could be much higher. Four people have died.

“The situation is serious. I think a large proportion of the population is infected,” said Edward Laane, head of the existing hospital in Kuressaare, the island’s main town. “We have already passed the point of no return.”

To curb the spread of the virus, the Estonian government cut off passenger traffic to and from the island, which is a half-hour ferry ride from the mainland, in mid-March, several days after the volleyball game in Kuressaare and a four-day champagne festival that followed.

But the virus has continued to spread on Saaremaa, a wind-swept tourist resort wedged between Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia.

Local inhabitants can get tested in a drive-by facility, without leaving their cars, and the new makeshift structure set up on the Kuressaare hospital grounds will add 20 intensive care beds with respiratory support systems.

“I think it might be critical,” Laane said of the extra resources.

Life on the island, which is home to many Estonian business start-ups and commuters working on the mainland, has ground to a halt, with police patrols ensuring islanders stick to restrictions on public life.

For some, like Ardon Kaerma, a 35-year-old enterpreneur, the new pace is a positive change on an island typically teeming with community life.

“Life has become calmer,” said Kaerma who runs a business making bottled birch tree sap, a regional delicacy. “I have discovered this situation somehow makes us act better. I have been in touch with neighbours who have somehow returned to the village and have been looking for ways to buy services so that the money remains on Saaremaa.”

The Saaremaa volleyball club, which has won national championships in the past, lost to the Milan team, which held the game on the island instead of Italy because the virus outbreak had already began there.

Estonian health board decided not to cancel the game at the last minute. “It saw no reason,” said Madis Kallas, Kuressaare mayor, who has contracted the disease but recovered.

“In Estonia, in Saaremaa, and in the world everything will be different after the crisis,” Kallas said. “I could not imagine I would see a time when everything is stopped, when people are at home, in the 21st century, in a quarantine.”

“No-one could see this in their darkest nightmares.” (Additional reporting by Valmar Voolaid in Saaremaa, Janis Laizans in Riga Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Alexandra Hudson)

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