A total of 13 patients, aged 22–55 years, were hospitalised with a coronavirus infection in the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS) on Monday. (Silja-Riikka Seppälä – Lehtikuva)

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EEVA RUOTSALAINEN, a deputy chief physician at the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS), has voiced her concern about the impact the delta variant of the new coronavirus has had on the epidemiological situation in Finland.

The number of infections has spiked, leading to an up-tick also in the number of hospitalised patients: from 24 at the end of June to 42 on Monday.

“The demand for hospital care has thereby doubled in a month. The number of patients in hospital wards is lower than during previous waves of the epidemic, but the trajectory is concerning,” Ruotsalainen commented to Helsingin Sanomat on Monday. “Age groups that haven’t been vaccinated or have only gotten the first dose are emphasised in patients requiring hospital care.”

Hospitals in HUS, she told, had a total of 13 patients with symptoms caused by the coronavirus, with their ages ranging from 22 to 54.

“There has been way too little talk about the fact that young age groups have also a risk of getting the prolonged coronavirus disease. If a fifth of those who get sick get the disease in the prolonged form, it translates to 20,000 people for every 100,000 who get sick. The working-age population is at the receiving end of an unknown disease risk.”

Ruotsalainen highlighted that the summer holidays can cause hospital challenges even when it comes to regular operations. The surge in infections has placed an enormous burden on contact tracing and effectively slowed down the identification of chains of infection and issue of quarantine orders.

Restrictions may consequently have to be stepped up rather than relaxed in some regions, according to her.

“Areas have now locked into looking at the low burden on hospital care all the while the case and incidence numbers have increased and contact tracing is hanging in there trying to keep up. As long as we adhere to the national hybrid coronavirus strategy, we have to be able to react to the situation worsening,” she underlined to Helsingin Sanomat.

The United Kingdom, she added, serves as a cautionary example, with physicians there reporting that a growing share of intensive care patients are between 20 and 30 years of age.

“The more people are able to meet one another without restrictions, get sick and transmit the virus, the higher the likelihood of the virus mutating further into an even more contagious or dangerous form. Viral variants are precisely what create uncertainty for what’s to come,” she said.

“It’s clear that the delta variant doesn’t recognise seasonal variation, it recognises people. A patient infected with the delta variant transmits it to an average of four people.”

Ruotsalainen argued that vaccinations do not offer a quick way out of the epidemic due to the relatively high number of young people who have yet been vaccinated and working-age people who have only received the first vaccine injection.

There are nearly two million unvaccinated people in Finland. If the government decides to vaccinate 12–15-year-olds without health conditions predisposing them to the disease next month, the vaccinations will not have commenced by the start of in-person teaching at schools.

“At this pace, we have a chance to reach a vaccination coverage of 90 per cent for over 12-year-olds no earlier than at the end of the year,” said Ruotsalainen.

She believes the situation should be managed with many of the tools presently in use: people should continue to observe social distancing and wear face masks in public places and on public transport. A health passport would be a good way to supplement the measures, according to her.

“If it can be pulled off by countries like Denmark and other European countries, why couldn’t we? When you’re talking about equality, you’ll also have to consider the equality of those people who don’t want to get sick in public places.”

Finland, she viewed, began relaxing restrictions prematurely, ill-advisedly sending a message to the public that it is acceptable to stop wearing masks and maintaining safe distances. The looming start of a new school year has also stirred up concerns in parents and teachers – understandably so.

“You shouldn’t belittle the fears parents have for their children. Also teachers’ concerns should be taken into consideration.”

Ruotsalainen said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has already updated its recommendations regarding ventilation, social distancing, face coverings, contact tracing and quarantines in school settings.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) on Tuesday reported that 612 new coronavirus infections have been detected in Finland, over a half of which were detected in HUS.

UPDATE: This article was updated with the cases reported on Tuesday by THL.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT