There has been a dramatic increase in the number of coronavirus cases at a Defence Forces academy in Hamina, southeast Finland.
Seven new cases emerged over Easter, bringing the total number detected in the infection cluster to 49. All but five of the cases were detected in conscripts at the Reserve Officers School, with the remainder in other Army Academy students.
Ville Ronkainen, chief physician of the Hamina garrison, said the first of the recent cases began to have symptoms on 22 March, when he was tested for the virus.
"The first coronavirus infection here in Hamina came to light on 24 March. The second came to light the following day. The virus circulating in the garrison seems to be highly contagious," Ronkainen said.
Military's handling in the spotlight
According to Ronkainen, the highly-infectious British variant of the coronavirus is suspected of being behind the outbreak, although that will not be confirmed for at least a few weeks. Garrison officials are unable to say exactly how many chains of infection are currently in the garrison.
Director of the Reserve Officers School Colonel Vesa Helminen said there were many factors behind the surge in infections.
"The various infection chains probably developed independently and came to the garrison. All possible ways this could have happened are under investigation, along with the situation of rising numbers itself," he said.
A fateful forest camp
But one conscript serving in Hamina says he was involved in a forest training camp that was likely the source of the Reserve Officers School outbreak. He spoke to Yle on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the situation.
He told Yle that one person left the training camp in the middle of the exercise. On the final morning, the rest of the participants were told the person had been diagnosed with coronavirus. The conscripts who were taking part in the forest training camp were then transferred to a building, separate from other members of the garrison.
According to the conscript Yle spoke to, isolation measures were not well implemented.
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"The separation fell apart in the new place. The people who'd been in close contact with the infected person were spread around. Almost every dorm had someone who'd been in close contact with the infection. It was a real Covid-spinner, when they spread those people around," he said.
Chief physician Ronkainen said standard procedure was to isolate corona-positive, exposed asymptomatic and exposed symptomatic patients in separate locations. According to Ronkainen, the people exposed to the virus were divided into the smallest possible groups to limit the amount of time the virus could circulate among them.
"Priority must be given to preventing such exposures from occurring. It must be confirmed that all Defence Forces training and guidance has been followed here," Ronkainen said.
The consccript Yle spoke to said asymptomatic cases and those with mild symptoms were kept together, with isolation reserved for those with more severe symptoms.
"We were told that only those with severe symptoms could leave. It was an interesting approach, since normally those exposed to the coronavirus would be isolated even if they didn't show symptoms. It's now become easier to go into isolation, but at first it was only for severe symptoms," he told Yle.
Symptoms should be reported
Ronkainen did not deny that asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients were kept in the same dorms, although he said that efforts had been made to address this.
"Yes, the aim has been to separate the symptomatic from the asymptomatic cases, whether they were exposed or not," he said.
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According to Ronkainen, conscripts who report coronavirus symptoms are provided with an isolation room and a test. The conscript must wait for the test results in isolation, he said.
"Of course, it requires a conscript to report symptoms and not just stay sick in the dorm," Ronkainen said.
The conscript Yle interviewed said he has been suffering mild coronavirus symptoms. He took a test a week ago on Monday and again this Tuesday.
"The latest test came up with nothing. It's a bad thing to leave a week between tests, quite a lot happened in between. Not that it matters much when the disease is already raging. The procedures should have worked better from the start."
Reserve Officers School director Helminen said the outbreak was being investigated.
"Our goal is always to preserve people's health as much as possible. Analysis of the factors that led to an increase in cases is being carried out and will contribute to improving our processes in future," he said.
Pori brigade reported similar concerns
The Conscripts' Association told Yle that they had been contacted by conscripts in the Pori brigade, scene of a similar outbreak a few weeks ago. The Pori brigade saw more than 30 infections and over 300 service members placed in quarantine.
The association's president, Atte Grönroos, said that some members in Pori had reported that conscripts exposed to the virus had remained in close proximity to others.
"In very rare cases exposed and non-exposed people ate meals together, isolation measures were not sufficient. They were using the same sanitation facilities, and the adequacy of those facilities has of course been a problem," he said.
However, Grönroos stressed that the Defence Forces had made efforts to contain the spread of the virus among soldiers.
"They have taken radical steps. It is in the Defence Forces' favour that trainees remain healthy and no one is put in any danger," he said.
Grönroos also called for conscripts to be placed higher in the order of coronavirus vaccinations, after at-risk groups, healthcare workers and other priority groups have been vaccinated.