The number of new cases of coronavirus infection continue to rise in Finland, according to Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) officials who presented a situation update on Thursday.
"Finland today passed the 20,000 mark of confirmed coronavirus cases," THL Chief Physician Taneli Puumalainen said.
Officials are now warning that so many new infections are currently being diagnosed that the situation could deteriorate rapidly across the country.
Last week, 1,534 new cases were reported nationwide, compared with 122 fewer the previous week. The incidence of new infections was 28 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 26 the previous week.
HUS district near the spreading stage
The majority of infections detected last week were in the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) area. Since late October the number of cases in the HUS area has increased by about a hundred per week, with 986 cases reported in the HUS area last week.
Finland's epidemic management strategy is based on a three-phase classification based on case numbers and other data.
The base situation is the lowest level, with the fewest numbers of cases, with acceleration in the middle and the 'spreading' phase designated in regions where the virus is spreading more widely in the community.
According to THL, many of the spreading phase criteria are now being met in the HUS area. However, the situation in hospitals and intensive care units is relatively good.
The highest infection numbers are being seen in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa, with lower levels recorded in other parts of the Uusimaa region.
The hospital districts of Helsinki and Uusimaa, Kanta-Häme, Länsi-Pohja, Pirkanmaa, Vaasa and Southwest Finland, as well as the province of Åland, are in the acceleration phase.
Other hospital districts are in the baseline phase, except for the cities of Rauma, Lahti and Kronoby and Kouvola which are also in the acceleration phase.
The majority of all infections still originates domestically. However, the number of infections acquired abroad has risen slightly. Foreign-origin infections accounted for about six percent of all new cases.
Increase among the elderly
Although the majority of new infections are being diagnosed in increasingly younger age groups and working-age adults, there are somewhat more cases in older age groups than in previous weeks.
The proportion of infections among people over the age of 60 has now risen to more than 12 percent. The proportion of people over the age of 70 falling ill has also risen alarmingly. Last week, the proportion of diagnoses in over the age of 70 was 6 percent, compared with around 3–4 percent last month.
"There are also some infections and clusters of infections in nursing homes," Puumalainen reported.
Uptick in workplace infections
More than half, or 55 percent, of the latest infections were found in people living in the same household as other patients.
"Close circles, homes and friends are still the biggest sources of infection, but there are now more infections in the workplace, about 20 percent of the infections detected. Break rooms and coffee rooms are places where it is important to remember to maintain safety distances and hygiene," Liisa-Maria Voipio-Pulkki, strategy director at the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health pointed out.
Testing has increased significantly since the spring. April capacity was 2,000 to 4,000 samples per day. In October, 10,000 to 18,000 tests were carried out daily.
Reducing social contact
Puumalainen of THL noted that a decrease in social contact explained the slowdown of the coronavirus epidemic in the spring.
"Finns are sociable. The myth of non-social Finns is not true. But in April, face-to-face contacts were reduced by 70 percent. In July, contacts in younger age groups grew and the coronavirus began to spread again," Puumalainen said.
In September, contacts increased further as work, studies and hobbies resumed after the summer.
"If we want to prevent an epidemic, we must reduce social contacts," Puumalainen stated in Thursday's briefing.
What about Christmas?
Many people are already wondering what Christmas will be like this year. A major concern is whether it will be possible to travel from the Uusimaa region to other parts of the country to spend the holidays with elderly family members.
"THL has stated that it would be better to spend Christmas with your closest circle. However, the risk of infection can be reduced through one's own actions. That means avoiding large public events, for example. And most of all, not going to visit grandparents if you have any symptoms," Puumalainen stressed.
"Although this is going to be a bit of a difficult and different Christmas, I would still believe that we can have a quite reasonable Christmas," he continued.
"For many of the elderly it would certainly hurt not to meet their relatives or acquaintances. However, if you plan well, agree in advance, observe safe distancing and are absolutely healthy, you can certainly visit the elderly," Voipio-Pulkki said.