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Helsinki's Covid situation worsens, city moves to open reserve hospital

Omicron is now behind 90 percent of new coronavirus cases in the capital area, which is struggling to keep normal hospital services running. A THL boss says a similar situation is anticipated in other parts of the country.

Mika Salminen, THL's director of health security. Image: Lehtikuva

The coronavirus situation in the Helsinki area has deteriorated rapidly, and the city announced on Wednesday it was stepping up its preparedness levels for anticipated further growth of new Covid cases.

Among other measures, the city is taking steps to use a reserve hospital in the Herttoniemi district, a move that will create 50 extra hospital beds.

The city is also planning to reassign staff to ensure the continuation of healthcare services. Non-urgent social and health care services will be temporarily limited in order to get workers focused on administering vaccinations, caring for Covid patients and carrying out other emergency healthcare services.

At the moment, there are around 70 Covid patients in Helsinki hospitals, and the city said that their numbers are continuing to grow. Meanwhile, the city said that the number of Covid patients in the broader Uusimaa region had doubled to nearly 100 from two weeks ago.

The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS) raised its emergency preparedness to the highest level last month.

The city said that the emergency readiness level would be downgraded as soon as the situation permits.

Covid tests over the past week have confirmed more than 10,000 new cases of the disease in the Helsinki area alone.

The city also noted that an increasing number of working-age people have been forced out of work due to coronavirus infections or exposure to people with Covid. It added that absences due to infections or quarantine orders were also increasing among city workers.

The Omicron variant is behind around 90 percent of new cases in the metropolitan area, according to the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

National Covid briefing

The number of new coronavirus cases in Finland has grown significantly in recent weeks, but Covid patients' overall need for hospitalisation has not grown at the same pace, according to Mika Salminen, THL's director of health security.

"The variant has spread throughout Finland. We can expect that a [healthcare] situation similar to that in the Helsinki metropolitan area will take place throughout the country," he said.

Salminen made the comments at the year's first coronavirus joint briefing by members of THL and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health on Wednesday.

The number of patients requiring intensive care has increased but Salminen said the overall need for hospital care elsewhere in Finland has not yet increased in proportion to the number of new cases.

According to THL, during the period of 26 December 2021 to 1 January, 2022, around 38,700 new Covid cases were diagnosed in Finland. The week before that the new case figure was just over 21,000.

THL boss: Schools should resume normally

Responding to a reporter's question about reopening schools after the holiday break, Salminen said school classes should open normally, rather than being held remotely.

"It is very important that children get an education and to experience normal life, if at all possible. The longer the epidemic drags on, the more important that becomes," he said.

Liisa-Maria Voipio-Pulkki, the ministry's director of strategic affairs, noted that the country's number of positive Covid tests had doubled in recent weeks, but said the actual number of infections were much higher than the official count.

"We can speak of orders of magnitude," she said.

The number of deaths has also risen recently, but she said the ratio of fatalities versus the number of cases is quite different now than in the early stages of the epidemic, when case numbers were much lower.

She said the vast majority of people who succumbed to coronavirus-related illness were over the age of 70.

Salminen said that, if necessary, the THL will update guidelines about shortened quarantine rules.

"The matter is now being actively considered," he said.

There is already a shortfall of staff at healthcare facilities due to quarantine orders and infections among workers. Several experts have suggested shortening the required 10-day quarantines to five to get those staff members back to work sooner. The main employers' group EK has also called for shorter quarantines.