Front-line health care workers first in line for vaccine in Finland

Vaccinations are expected to start rolling out as soon as this Sunday.

File photo of a vaccine being administered. Image: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva

Finland has laid out its initial coronavirus vaccine plans, with front-line ICU health care workers being the first to get the jab, then other healthcare personnel will be vaccinated.

The announcement was made at a joint press briefing held on Tuesday by representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) the University of Helsinki, as well as others.

Vaccincations will begin as soon as Sunday, Kirsi Varhila, the permanent secretary of the social affairs and health ministry said, adding that the vaccine is suitable for everyone, including people who have severe asthma and the obese.

Varhila said that there will be adequate supply of the vaccine, but that shipments will arrive in smaller batches than previously expected. However, she said that there will be enough of the vaccines for everyone who wants it during winter and spring.

The permanent secretary said Finland has the right to purchase seven different coronavirus-fighting vaccines. The first of these include batches from pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and BioNTech, which are expected to arrive to Finland on Boxing Day.

"We have an agreement for 18.5 million doses, which is enough for nine million vaccinations. It is safe to get vaccinated," Varhila said, noting that Finland had received 10,000 doses in the first of its shipments.

Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Krista Kiuru (SDP) said that the vaccines would eventually be offered to everyone in the country over the age of 16, but that doing so would take time and that getting the jab would be voluntary.

Initial plans explained

Taneli Puumalainen, head of THL's infectious diseases unit, said that more detailed information on the vaccination roll-out would be issued later on Tuesday.

Once the vaccines are administered to health care workers, the country's oldest members--those over the age of 70--will begin to receive their doses, according to the plan, Varhila said.

Then, social workers employed at care homes as well as critical social and health care workers in hospital transplant and other emergency surgery staff will get their jabs.

The ministry has taken recommendations about the vaccination plan from expert group the National Advisory Committee on Vaccines (Krar).

According to a report in evening paper Ilta-Sanomat on Monday, the committee divided various Covid risk groups into two categories--one with health conditions that pose very high risks of severe reactions to an infection and another group with conditions that pose high risk for severe reactions.

Individuals considered at very high risk include those with chronic kidney disease, people with severe immunity conditions caused by cancer treatments or organ transplants, people with chronic lung illnesses like severe asthma and COPD as well as people with type-2 diabetes.

People in the less-severe risk group include those with coronary disease, sufferers of sleep apnea and those with cirrhotic liver disease.

New variant in UK

THL's Puumalainen said that the eyes of the world were currently directed towards the UK, where a mutated version of the virus has been confirmed.

He added that the virus was continuing to spread strongly in the northern hemisphere, but noted that the situation in Finland was relatively good compared to the rest of Europe, particularly in relation to neighbouring countries of Sweden and Russia. He said Finland's case rate is about 90 per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks.

Puumalainen said Finland's R0 number stands at 1.0, adding that 273 people were receiving hospital care for coronavirus infections, 28 of whom in intensive care. He noted that Finland has carried out around 2.3 million coronavirus tests since the pandemic arrived to the country last spring.

The infectious diseases chief also said that around two percent of tests that were being taken have been positive, which represented a recent slight decrease.

Answering a reporter's question regarding the flow of vaccines into Finland, Puumalainen said that the country has been cautious not to speculate on the size of deliveries but added that deliveries are expected to continue every week.

"Of course we hope that production will be accelerated," Puumalainen said.

Meanwhile, clinical microbiology specialist professor Olli Vapalahti from the University of Helsinki said that while the mutated variation of the coronavirus seen in the UK was more contagious, there were no indications that it poses an increased health risk, nor that the vaccine would not be able to combat it.

Vapalahti said Finland had not yet confirmed a case of the mutated variety of the virus but added research into the topic was ongoing.