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7 kids, families exposed to coronavirus at Helsinki cancer ward

The hospital district initially said no patients had been exposed but now about half of the ward's staff is quarantined.

Uusi Lastensairaala HUS:n Meilahden sairaala-alueella Helsingissä.
Helsinki's New Children's Hospital. Image: Seppo Samuli / Lehtikuva

A total of seven children and their families were exposed to novel coronavirus at Helsinki’s New Children's Hospital’s cancer and organ transplant ward, according to the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS).

Last week HUS reported that a nurse at the ward had tested positive for Covid-19 but said that no patients had been exposed.

Over the weekend, however, the hospital district said that others had caught the illness, adding that two patients and visiting family members had been exposed.

However, according to information obtained by Yle, others had also been exposed to the virus.

The children’s hospital’s chief physician, Eero Jokinen, has confirmed that seven children and their families had been exposed. He said that so far none of those affected have tested positive for the illness but that some tests were still incomplete.

Jokinen declined to say how many people were tested.

According to Yle sources, a mother and her son from Uusimaa were exposed at the hospital ward. The mother told Yle that she is upset and worried.

“How can this happen, especially on this ward?” she asked, saying that the level of care in the department should be excellent because the immune systems of the young patients there are nil.

In addition to caring for children with cancer, the Taika ward also treats diseases of the blood and organ transplant patients as well as stem cell treatments.

Mother: 'No apology' from hospital

Yle’s Finnish-language news also spoke to two other mothers of children at the special care ward. Both said they were sceptical whether proper safety measures to protect patients were adequately followed.

One of the mothers said her son had been at the ward for several weeks and that he was exposed to the virus a few days before he was scheduled to be discharged.

“A doctor told us that we had been exposed to a nurse who had the infection. No one even apologised,” the mother said, requesting that she remain anonymous because her son is still receiving treatment at the ward.

The other child’s mother told Yle that no one in her family had been infected, saying that she learned about the coronavirus exposure at the ward through the media.

She said the hospital district contacted her about the situation the following day.

Chief physician Jokinen said that informing parents did not go as desired, explaining that all staff resources were busy carrying out health care duties.

Jokinen said that the safety measures put in place were done following consultation with infectious disease specialist physicians.

“We used the expertise of infectious disease specialists. No one on the staff who was on the job [at the time of the incident] has shown symptoms [of a coronavirus infection]. At the moment we do not know what we could have done differently,” Jokinen said.

'No symptoms, no test'

One of the mothers said that parents were told that children on the ward would be extensively tested for coronavirus.

“Our girl had flu symptoms and the night nurse reported it. Then we were told that she would not be tested because the symptoms could be side effects from the care she was receiving, although they had said children would be tested at the first sign of symptoms,” the mother told Yle.

Meanwhile, Jokinen said that the rules on carrying out coronavirus tests on patients were the same as for others.

“No symptoms [means] no test. If a patient shows symptoms and has been in contact with someone who has the illness, then of course we will take a test,” he said.

Jokinen added that the patients at the cancer and transplant ward are observed around-the-clock because their immune systems are weak and cannot combat viruses well.

Now, a large portion of the ward’s staff is in quarantine. According to Jokinen, they account for about half of the special care department’s personnel.

“Right now we are managing, but it is difficult,” Jokinen said, adding that no patients have been moved from the ward and no patient care has been interrupted due to the incident.

To relieve the reduced staff, some non-emergency care services are being carried out remotely.

Jokinen said that the ward’s team has been flexible in dealing with the circumstances.

“We wish and hope that the spread has been stopped within the Taika ward. We must remember that anyone can be infected without showing symptoms,” he said.

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