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HUS struggles to cut Covid test result delays amid capacity boost

On Sunday the district's lab carried out a record-breaking 4,600 tests, and plans to nearly double that daily figure by mid-October.

Huslab-laboratorion kyltti seinällä.
Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district's laboratory HUSLAB in the city's Meilahti neighbourhood, file photo. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Last month, Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS) was faced with a sizable challenge when the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health announced a goal to carry out 20,000 coronavirus tests across the country every day.

The district's laboratory, HUSLAB, will be responsible for analysing the lion's share of those tests. There are plans to reach more than 8,000 daily Covid tests per day by mid-October and later on, further raise the figure to 10,000 daily tests.

HUS' diagnostics director, Lasse Lehtonen, said it was an difficult goal to achieve.

"The ministry's goal is for people to be able to get a test appointment within a day and then have a result the day after that. That's a really tough goal," Lehtonen said.

The lab is able to carry out a large number of tests but the bottleneck is their analysis, he explained.

At the moment, HUSLAB has a capacity of analysing around 4,000 tests per day. The lab is assisted by outsourcing some of the workload to medical diagnostics provider Synlab.

"4,600 coronavirus samples were analysed on Sunday, which is a record. Last week more than 26,000 coronavirus test analyses were performed, but if 5,000 samples were to be taken, a queue would form, unfortunately," Lehtonen said.

Delays regrettable

Yle spoke to a Helsinki family that recently had to wait seven days for the results of a coronavirus test carried out on a pre-school age child. There are also several discussion threads concerning test result delays in the Helsinki area on the online chat platform Jodel.

Lehtonen acknowledged the delays and said they were regrettable.

"Of course it is very unfortunate and it shouldn't be like this. There have been issues with sample labelling or shipments of samples," he said.

However, Lehtonen said the situation is expected to improve once HUS' online coronavirus test booking platform, koronabotti, opens to the public later this month.

"When that's in use, the request [for a test] will go directly into the lab's database. Then, a response [for scheduling a test] will be sent to the patient within an hour," Lehtonen explained.

HUS also has plans to expand its test analysis capacity with additional assistance from the private sector. A current agreement with health care firm Mehiläinen is set to expire at the end of September, and the hospital district plans to open a tender on 1 October to get help to boost its capacity.

Lehtonen said that the ministry's testing targets are too high for the district's health care system to deal with alone.

Moving tests indoors

Over the late spring and summer, a portion of tests carried out in the district have taken place at makeshift drive-in testing points, but as the weather gets chillier, HUS is looking for new solutions.

"We're trying to get rid of the [testing] tents, if at all possible. From the point of view of both patients and staff, conditions need to be arranged in such a way that the work can be carried out in heated facilities. We have tried to operate testing sites connected to - or nearby - public health centres," he said, explaining that new sites need to be found.

Lehtonen said that setting up testing sites in underground car parks is one solution under consideration. Another possible site could be at Helsinki's Expo and Convention Centre, where Mehiläinen already operates a coronavirus testing site.

It may also be possible for municipalities to provide spaces for testing sites at facilities that are otherwise underused due to the coronavirus situation.

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