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One week: Covid testing delays grow in Helsinki region

Staff shortages and lack of automation have led to longer waits for coronavirus testing in the Helsinki metropolitan area.

näytteenotto covid19 porvoo
Coronavirus tests must be performed by specially trained medical staff. Image: Markku Rantala / Yle

Individuals seeking coronavirus tests in the Helsinki region may have to wait up to three days for an appointment, with a possible further delay of another three to four days to learn of their results, local health officials have confirmed.

The backlog is mainly due to a shortage of healthcare workers in the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS), as well as issues related to the non-automation of services, according to the district.

According to Finland’s national coronavirus strategy, if a coronavirus infection is suspected, access to a test should be available within one day.

"The goal is that if a patient knows how to use [the electronic public sector-based social and health service] Omaolo and receives a negative response, the healthcare professional does not need to do anything other than take a sample," the medical director of Helsinki health centres, Timo Lukkarinen, explained.

"Everything else should happen automatically. In that case, the burden of the negative result on healthcare would be as small as possible and the response would be quick," he said.

However, patients in the Helsinki metropolitan area are experiencing delays at a number of different stages of the process -- including getting referrals for tests, booking an appointment time as well as receiving final results.

Test times not always available

Patients who suspect they may have a coronavirus infection are first instructed to perform an online check up via the Omaolo.fi service, which is also available in English. If the result of the online test gives reason to suspect an infection, the person should be able to reserve an appointment for a coronavirus test through the service.

However, the availability of test times varies, and at the time of publication on Tuesday, there were no available appointments in Helsinki, Espoo or Vantaa.

Telephone helpline severely congested

If it is not possible to perform a symptom assessment and make an appointment via the online service, the patient is instructed to contact the coronavirus counselling helpline by telephone.

However, this service is congested due to staff shortages and the large volume of calls.

Hand-written referrals

There are also delays in patients receiving referrals required to take a coronavirus test.

Even if the Omaolo.fi service offers an available test time, it does not automatically produce a laboratory referral, according to medical director Lukkarinen. Instead, the process must be handled manually by a healthcare professional, he explained.

This process is the only way for the referral to also appear in the [personal online health record database] Omakanta service. According to Lukkarinen, this is pointless extra work, as the referral could just as easily be done by a bot.

Staff shortages in testing

In an interview published on Monday in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, HUS's director of diagnostics, Lasse Lehtonen, said that the hospital district made an assessment error in its estimation of increases in testing volumes, and that there are not enough staff to carry out the tests -- a mistake which he noted had resulted in the current three-day backlog.

Lehtonen told the paper that more people are applying for tests than expected and that the demand for testing has also increased due to patients suffering from non-Covid summer flu symptoms.

Over the summer HUS prepared for a potential second wave of the coronavirus epidemic by hiring 150 new staff to help carry out testing, but this number has so far proved to be insufficient, according to Lehtonen.

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