'Incidental' Covid adds to strain on Finnish hospitals

One in five Covid patients in hospital admitted for other reasons.

Stock photo from Päijät-Häme central hospital, taken on 24 November 2021. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Covid hospitalisations have increased nationwide, but not all patients in hospital with Covid are there because they have Covid.

There are big differences in the hospitalisation numbers for covid wars in different parts of Finland, but as many as one in five of the patients counted in daily totals were admitted to hospital for reasons other than Covid.

That is, their Covid is not necessarily so bad they need to be in hospital to treat it, but they tested positive on admission for other reasons.

In South-west Finland there has been a moderate rise in hospitalisations, with 20 people in hospital on Monday and five of those in intensive care.

In Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district, meanwhile, there are 130 patients in total including 21 in ICUs.

"Of course you have to be concerned," said Chief Physician Veli-Matti Ulander from the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district. "Intensive care is one thing, but bed occupancy on wards is also up significantly and that disrupts every other aspect of hospital care."

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Intensive care units are treating both vaccinated and unvaccinated patients who have some underlying conditions or a suppressed immune system. For example HUS no longer reports the vaccination status of patients in hospitals, as there are so many of them.

"For example you can conclude from the patients on the respiratory and intensive care units that two doses of vaccine delivers almost 100 percent protection from needing intensive care, and significantly reduces the risk of other hospital care, when you consider that a large proportion of the general population is now vaccinated," said Marjukka Myllärniemi from the heart and lung centre at HUS.

Oulu University hospital OYS says that non-urgent care has been reduced for around a month. Chief Physician Terhi Nevala says that the number of Covid patients in the hospital has fluctuated between 15 and 32.

"Today there have been 19 Covid patients and over the preceding week there were between one and three patients in intensive care," said Nevala.

Statistics include those not admitted for Covid treatment

The strain of treating Covid patients is evident throughout the healthcare system, and it has prompted HUS, for example, to postpone all but acute care.

The hospitalisation figures don't tell the whole story, however. For example in the Helsinki and Turku regions, doctors say that one in five hospital patients with Covid has sought care for something other than Covid and only tested positive once they reached hospital.

"Patients are spread quite widely between different units," said Ulander. "There are people injured in accidents, mothers giving birth, people who came to hospital for mental health care or stomach pains who have incidentally tested positive for Covid."

Patients have been routinely tested for Covid since early December in Turku, in an effort to avoid hospital epidemics and to protect vulnerable patients.

In terms of managing the load borne by hospitals, it makes little difference how significant a Covid patient's symptoms are.

"From the hospital's perspective the same resources are used in any case," said Harri Marttila, Chief Physician at Turku University hospital. "Whether the patient has a significant, symptomatic and serious Covid infection that has brought them to hospital, or if it's an incidental diagnosis."