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Lehtonen: epidemic stages criteria could be reassessed

The HUS medic says that the number of daily infections is only a fragment of the bigger picture.

Lasse Lehtonen, Helsinki, 02.11.2020
HUS Director of Diagnostic Services, Lasse Lehtonen, pictured in 2 November 2020. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

The government should re-evaluate the criteria for classifying the 'phase' of the Covid epidemic in different regions, according to Lasse Lehtonen, HUS Director of Diagnostic Services.

The health expert says current criteria do not take the coronavirus vaccine into account and while infections in the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) are rising exponentially, hospitalisations have not increased at the same rate.

This comes a day after the Health Agency, THL's director, Mika Salminen said that Finland has now probably entered a fourth wave of the pandemic. On Tuesday, Finland saw the summer's highest number of new infections, 461.

Lehtonen said that the strain placed on hospitals should be a bigger factor in the pandemic criteria than the growth of infections.

"Up until now, hospitalisations have been proportional to the number of infections, but at the moment it's unclear whether this will continue to happen. Once the population is fully vaccinated, the risk of serious disease will be low, and the calculation of infections alone will not describe the situation accurately."

Vaccine coverage is currently keeping health experts and politicians on their toes.

"Unfortunately, we are a little behind where we should be. Therefore, speeding up vaccinations is extremely important," Lehtonen said.

More cases to come but vaccine coverage could see fewer hospitalisations

The current stages of the coronavirus epidemic are the base phase, acceleration phase, and community transmission phase. At the first level, the epidemic is stable and the incidence rate remains low. During the acceleration phase, the growth of the epidemic begins to advance while the last phase sees cases spread widely and contact tracing become increasingly difficult.

Lehtonen says he does not believe that current conditions in the capital area call for an upgrade from acceleration to the community transmission phase.

"The hospital capacity strain is one of the pandemic stage criteria, and the need for medical care has not increased dramatically during this week at least. Some isolated cases are being treated in the intensive care unit and some dozens in the general wards," the HUS director said.

The virus is currently spreading fast in the capital area, especially among those between 18 and 29 years of age. If hospitalisations or mortality rates start growing, tougher restrictions will have to be re-introduced.

"However, vaccinations have changed the situation so that we cannot be sure whether the restrictions will be necessary. We are closely following the situation abroad, such as that in Britain," Lehtonen said, adding that "unfortunately, the infections will continue to grow. I think that hospitalisations will also increase between August and September, but I believe and hope that protection offered by the vaccine will be so effective that the number of patients will remain tame."

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