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International travel prompts uptick in coronavirus cases in Finland

A doctor in Turku said he has seen poor compliance with quarantine recommendations by people who've been abroad.

Kuvassa on matkustajia Helsinki-Vantaan lentoasemalla heinäkuussa 2020.
Passengers at Helsinki Airport in July (file photo). Image: Silja Viitala / Yle
Yle News

Health officials in Finland have noted an increase in confirmed coronavirus infections druing July, following the relaxation of government-implemented restrictions over the summer.

Infection rates within the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District have increased in recent weeks, according to the district. During the second week of July 16 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, but by the end of July, HUS recorded 50 new cases.

Now, just five days into August, dozens of new cases have been reported. In July the proportion of positive cases tested in the district was 0.1-0.3 percent, but by Tuesday, 4 August, that ratio had grown to 0.9 percent of tests.

But the district's deputy chief physician Eeva Ruotsalainen said it was too early to tell whether Finland had entered the beginning of a second wave of the pandemic, however she said the country was on its precipice and that it needs to prevent the spread of the virus using the skills and tools it used to stave off the first wave.

Ruotsalainen said the lifting of restrictions on activities like travel and gatherings of groups had gone well, but that she thought too many restrictions had been lifted by around the middle of July.

Among other factors, the physician said that the relaxation of international travel bans had resulted in introducing new infection chains to the district - an area which was hardest-hit by the epidemic last spring and early summer.

During the last two weeks of July, the source of many infections was foreign tourism and other summertime gatherings like youth camps also contributed to the uptick, according to the physician.

Viral exposures also took place at daycare centres as well as at a handful of larger parties, Ruotsalainen said.

Mostly young adults infected

The vast majority of recent positive coronavirus cases were seen among people aged 20-49, accounting for around 80 percent of confirmed infections.

However, the strong representation of the age group in the statistics might be due to younger people being more mobile. Additionally, the proportion of senior citizens testing positive for Covid sharply decreased as safety measures at places like elder care facilities improved, she said.

"The ban on visits [to nursing homes] and the use of face masks in treatment situations have had a significant effect on the decreasing the proportion of the elderly [from being infected]," Ruotsalainen said.

Testing delays in Pirkanmaa

Meanwhile in Tampere in the Pirkanmaa Hospital District, nearly 200 km north of Helsinki, individuals seeking Covid tests have been forced to wait up to three days to receive them, according to Tampere University hospital infectious disease physician Janne Laine.

"During July the number of people requesting tests has increased throughout the month," he explained, adding that increasing testing capacity was also hampered by hospital staff shortages due to summer vacations.

However, Laine said a lot of work is being done to rectify the situation.

"We have to get this fixed on a tight schedule. It is by no means an acceptable situation to be forced to wait to be tested," he said, adding that individuals who have Covid-19 symptoms should be able to have access to testing within a maximum of 24 hours.

Southwest Finland flares up

Esa Rintala, the infectious diseases chief physician at Turku University Hospital, also attributed a recent uptick in confirmed coronavirus cases to international travel. In the last few days, the region of Southwest Finland recorded four new Covid cases, with a dozen reported over the past week. To date, there have been a total of 403 Covid cases recorded in the region of Southwest Finland.

Rintala said all of the new cases were linked to a trip abroad, with people returning home to Finland and spreading the illness to other family members.

He also noted that compliance with quarantine recommendations appears to have become a problem, adding that the situation had caused many new infections and that it worries him.

However, Rintala also said it was too early to say whether the recent uptick indicated the start of the second wave of the epidemic in Finland, explaining that assessment would need to be made over a longer period of time.

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