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Dozens of coronavirus cases among football fans returning from Russia

The news follows reports that up to 800 travellers were allowed into Finland without being tested by Border Guard officials on Tuesday.

Hundreds of returning football fans waited to cross the border on Tuesday after Finland's 2-0 loss to Belgium in St Petersburg. Image: Niklas Joki / Yle

Dozens of coronavirus infections have been found in people who crossed the Russian border via Vaalimaa this week.

In the southeastern region of Kymenlaakso, where Vaalimaa is located, a total of 60 cases have been detected in the last two days.

Risto Pietikäinen, the infectious disease physician in charge of coronavirus testing at the Vaalimaa crossing, said 55 of those are likely to have come from travellers returning from Russia.

The news comes after queues at the Vaalimaa crossing on Tuesday forced authorities to allow 800 travellers into Finland without being tested.

On Wednesday THL expert Jari Jalava said the decision would likely be reflected in infection numbers in Finland.

"People who went to Russia have potentially become infected there. The infection situation there is worse than ours," he told Yle.

Football's fans coming home

The Vaalimaa border crossing was jammed on Tuesday evening as football fans who'd travelled to St Petersburg to watch Finland play in the Euro2020 Championship returned home. According to the South-East Finland Border Guard, at worst there were a dozen buses and several hundred cars waiting at the border.

According to local health body Kymsote, transport operators had been called upon in advance to ensure that border traffic would be evenly distributed between Vaalimaa and another crossing point at Nujamaa.

Russia has a higher coronavirus infection rate than Finland, with the Delta variant a particular concern. Image: Antro Valo / Yle

THL's Jalava said the decision to suspend coronavirus testing was the only possible solution to ease the congestion. The capacity in Vaalimaa was too small to accommodate all those coming across the border.

"Hardly anyone was passing through Nuijamaa. Everyone was packed into Vaalimaa. So the second crossing point, which had also been prepared for entry, was used very little. This is what I have been told today," Jalava said on Wednesday.

South Karelia health and social care district Eksote told Yle that at least 277 samples were taken in Nuijamaa on Tuesday. Eksote did not allow anyone to cross the border without being tested.

Kymsote said just over 3,000 people crossed the border on Tuesday in passenger traffic. Of these, an estimated 2,800 were football fans. More than 900 coronavirus test samples were taken at the Vaalimaa border post.

Positive cases

Vaalimaa physician Pietikäinen told Yle that 846 coronavirus tests were taken at the border on Tuesday and 244 on Wednesday.

"There was probably time to take samples from everyone yesterday. The main concern now is that we are trying to send the municipalities the details of the nearly 800 people who crossed the border without a test, so that they can be tested," he said.

At the moment, the information for those travellers only exists in paper records. They either have to be put into electronic format or each municipality has to be called individually to get everyone's details.

Pietikäinen said that positive coronavirus tests were already coming in from municipalities.

"If someone on a bus was infected, the whole bus has been exposed," he said.

The Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) said on Wednesday evening that 34 of the coronavirus samples taken on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vaalimaa from residents of the HUS area have already tested positive.

Border guard unprepared

Border Guard officials had asked the operators for timetables of arrivals and departures in advance, so that preparations could be made for the volume of border traffic. The Border Guard received timetable information from only a few operators.

"Based on this information, it was not possible to make a forecast as to when the majority of passengers would travel," said Jari Huttinen, Senior Border Guard Officer at the Vaalimaa border inspection post.

Jari Huttinen told Yle travel companies had not provided the Border Guard with enough information. Image: Antro Valo / Yle

In addition to buses, a large number of passenger cars crossed the border, for which no prior information was available.

"Unfortunately, a large part of the mass of passengers arrived within a few hours during the early evening and evening hours on Tuesday, causing traffic to become congested," Huttunen said.

One returning fan, Vesa Laakso, told Helsingin Sanomat by phone on Tuesday that the heat on his bus was as intense as a "sauna" and there was initially no drinking water available.

"Our bus left St. Petersburg at 12pm, so we had already had a moderately long day. We were at Vaalimaa station at about 5pm, and we then waited at the border for more than three hours," Laakso said.