HUS head physician: Fully vaccinated should be able to celebrate Christmas normally

Asko Järvinen, head of infectious diseases at Finland's largest health care provider, says that while the new Omicron variant causes uncertainty, most people should be able to gather for the holidays as usual.

Asko Järvinen, Head Physician and Head of Infectious Diseases at the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS), was interviewed on Yle TV1 on Saturday morning. Image: Benjamin Suomela / Yle

According to Asko Järvinen, Head Physician and Head of Infectious Diseases at the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS), the new, more infectious Omicron variant of Covid-19 could become the dominant strain in Finland by Christmas "if things go really badly".

"Omicron is causing a small amount of uncertainty, but at the moment it seems that Christmas may be completely normal," he said on Yle TV1's Ykkösaamu current affairs programme on Saturday morning.

Fully vaccinated people should still be able to spend Christmas with each other more or less normally, he said.

Unvaccinated people are another matter, as they are now becoming infected at higher levels than at any point during the entire epidemic – even before the likely arrival of the Omicron variant. On Friday a new daily record was set, with 1,406 new cases, roughly one-third of them in the HUS district.

HUS, which includes Helsinki University Hospital and four other hospital areas, is Finland's largest health care provider.

"A unique feature of this epidemic is that illness among a rather small share of the population is leading to large numbers of intensive care patients," Järvinen said of the current situation, when ICU facilities are nearing full capacity in many parts of the country.

As of Friday there were 44 patients in ICUs, with officials warning of dramatic knock-on effects for other healthcare if that number exceeds 50-60.

Alpha could peak around Christmas

At the moment, it is important to focus on continuing to fight the Delta strain effectively, Järvinen emphasised. Infections caused by Delta are on the rise in Finland, with the peak forecast to occur around Christmas.

Järvinen predicts that the entire winter season will continue with similar pandemic levels as now, and restrictions and use of the Covid pass needed until at least next spring.

With nearly a third of the population still without full vaccination protection, there is plenty of room for the epidemic to progress. Decisions are expected soon on vaccinating children aged 5-11 and expanding third booster shots to those under 60.

Järvinen declined to speculate in detail on the possible impact of Omicron, saying that too little is so far known about it.

It is known that Omicron is more likely to spread faster than Delta, but not yet whether it causes more severe illness or whether it is more able to break through vaccine protection, he said.

"Despite border checks, variants spread quickly"

Based on previous variants, though, it is clear that Finland will not be able to prevent the new variant from entering if the variant is allowed to spread around the world, Järvinen said.

"Despite all the border checks and other precautions, these variants have spread very quickly," he noted.

When the Alpha variant from Britain arrived in Finland around last Christmas, it was the variant was quickly identified and tracing started immediately.

"However, Alpha became mainstream in eight weeks, around the same time as the rest of the world. Control measures could not prevent its spread, although we probably avoided the peak levels of infection, Järvinen said.

As of Saturday, Omicron had been detected in southern Africa as well as at least Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, via a traveller who had been in Egypt and Turkey. Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK also reported suspected cases on Saturday.