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HUS top doc: Omicron variant, staff absences piling pressure on healthcare system

The Chief Physician however noted that the need for hospital and intensive care treatment has not increased in proportion to the number of cases.

Chief Physician and head of the infectious diseases department at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS) Asko Järvinen. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

The rapid rise in coronavirus infections and the increasing need for healthcare staff to quarantine is placing significant pressure on Finland's healthcare system, according to Asko Järvinen, Chief Physician and head of the infectious diseases department at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS).

Järvinen told Yle's Ykkösaamu breakfast show on Friday morning that the HUS area in particular is experiencing high levels of staff absences due to Covid infections and exposure.

"Every single day we have to count the absentees and at the same time see how many hospital beds are available," Järvinen said. "The increase in infections is very fast, which is a feature of the Omicron variant."

Public health authority THL registered 9,921 new lab-confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, with the Omicron variant currently the most dominant variant in Finland.

However, Järvinen noted that, on the positive side, the need for hospital and intensive care treatment has not increased in proportion to the number of cases.

Despite this, the number of people requiring hospital treatment has more than doubled over the past 10 days. There were 235 people receiving hospital treatment in Finland on 28 December. As of Friday morning, 7 January, that figure had climbed to 508.

Of that figure, some 55 patients are currently being treated in intensive care units. This is only a very slight increase from the 52 Covid patients in ICU units one week previously, on New Year's Eve.

"The need for intensive care treatment is considerably less than during previous waves," Järvinen said.

Omicron variant could impact regional election turnout

The deteriorating coronavirus situation could jeopardise turnout at the upcoming regional elections, scheduled for 23 January, Järvinen told Ykkösaamu.

However, he added that voting at polling stations should be safe.

"If face masks and hand disinfectant are used there [at the polling stations], I do not think that the situation will be any more dangerous than at a grocery store," he said, adding the more uncertain element will be how many people can actually turn out to vote.

"The bigger problem is if a large part of the population is ill or in quarantine on polling day," Järvinen said.

The issue of quarantines also sparked debate during last year's municipal elections. At the time, the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that not everyone was able to vote if they had been infected with or exposed to the virus, as no preparations had been made for voting while in isolation.

The ministry was criticised for not providing for the voting rights of Covid infected or exposed voters.