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HUS under-utilising coronavirus test capacity, medical director says

HUS carries out about 500 tests per day but has the capacity to carry out three times as many.

Novel coronavirus test samples. Image: Pasi Takkunen / Yle

Much more coronavirus testing could be carried out than currently is at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS), according to the district's chief medical director, Markku Mäkijärvi.

HUS carries out about 500 tests per day but there is capacity to carry out 1,500, however Mäkijärvi noted that it is currently easier to get a test now than it has been.

In order to get a better understanding of how the epidemic is spreading, Mäkijärvi said it would be a good idea to carry out more tests and to expand the criteria used in determining who should be tested.

Mäkijärvi made the comments in a interview on Yle TV1's breakfast show on Friday.

Overall, Finland carries out about 2,500 novel coronavirus tests per day, according to Päivi Sillanaukee, the Director General of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, but she said more testing equipment would be needed to increase the amount.

“I think that the progression of the disease in Finland is now relatively slow, but we need to test more nursing staff,” Sillanaukee said.

On Wednesday, Social Services Minister Krista Kiuru announced that testing capacity would be doubled in the near future from the current level of 2,500 tests per day.

Who should wear masks?

Regarding the sometimes controversial topic of whether it is a good idea for the general public to use face masks, Sillanaukee said Finland is still adhering to its previous guidelines.

Finland’s coronavirus mask policy currently follows that of the WHO: they should be saved for healthcare personnel and those who are already sick. But some western countries, including the United States, are planning to update their guidelines on face mask use.

The US disease control centre CDC is reportedly about to recommend that all people in hard-hit areas of the epidemic should use face masks.

New York City has become an epicentre of the outbreak, and the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio instructed residents to cover their faces with scarves or other homemade masks, but said medical grade face shields should be reserved for front-line healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, the Finnish ministry’s Sillanaukee said the recommendation for those who are ill is to stay at home. She noted that only special types of face masks can actually shield people from infection, while lighter masks and scarves help to protect others.

Home health care professionals have received instruction to use face masks so they do not infect clients.

The ministry has advised that washable face masks are also suitable for home care workers, and that hospital grade masks should be saved for healthcare personnel who know how to use them properly.

HUS’ chief medical director Mäkijärvi said he thinks the WHO’s guidelines are sensible.

“If you treat patients or suspect one has an infection, mask use is justified, but the main principles of their use should be kept in mind,” he said.

Earlier this week Yle reported that Finnish healthcare workers have received face masks and equipment marked with use-by dates in 2012.

The out-of-date equipment was sent to hospitals after the government ordered the National Emergency Supply Agency (Nesa) to open its stockpiles and supply urgently-needed protective equipment to frontline staff.

Mäkijärvi said Finland acquired the old masks during the swine flu outbreak.

The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland tested the out-of-date masks and found that most of them were still usable, however some of the rubber bands on the masks had deteriorated.

Mäkijärvi emphasised that healthcare professionals are not using damaged masks.

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