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THL chief: Vaccine distribution debate 'politicised'

"Since the issue is regionally and politically relevant, it becomes a political decision," Markku Tervahauta said.

Markku Tervahauta.
Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

The ongoing debate about changing Finland's coronavirus vaccination plan has become politicised, according to the director of the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Markku Tervahauta.

A country often cited for its egalitarianism, Finland's current vaccine policy involves rolling out the jabs to the elderly and at-risk groups across the country. However, some say the country should instead target the vaccine in areas with the highest infection rates.

On Tuesday Interior Minister and Green Party chair Maria Ohisalo criticised the health agency for contradictory signals about the vaccination scheme.

On Tuesday, Tervahauta suggested in comments to Helsingin Sanomat that areas worst hit by the epidemic— the Helsinki metropolitan area and Turku — should be given additional vaccines while risk groups are still being vaccinated elsewhere in the country.

But a statement from THL, signed by Tervahauta and dated 25 March, said that regional targeting of vaccine distribution "would not lead to a significant decrease in the number of cases in the short term."

In an interview with Yle on Wednesday, Tervahauta said the conversation about the policy had become politicised.

"Since the issue is regionally and politically relevant, it becomes a political decision," he said.

The national vaccine expert group KRAR also supports a readjustment of the country's vaccination scheme, saying the priority change should take place even before all risk groups get their jabs.

Risk groups and vaccines

Meanwhile, Markku Mäkijärvi, chief physician at the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS), agrees with the expert group.

"Helsinki residents with diabetes face a 30-times greater risk of contracting Covid-19 than people in other parts of the country. Changing the vaccination scheme could reduce cases by 20 percent. You put out forest fires where the flames are," he said, adding that the changes should be made quickly, as they would affect the third wave of coronavirus.

"If we wait until all risk groups are vaccinated, it will be late May. Then we can't affect the third wave anymore," he explained.

According to a survey by daily Helsingin Sanomat, the majority of Finns said that areas hardest-hit by the epidemic should get more vaccines.

THL chief Tervahauta noted, however, that changing the vaccination plan should be done while taking logistical and equitable treatment concerns into consideration.

The logistical issues include matters like the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine requires storage at -70 degrees Celsius, and that isn't possible in all areas. Meanwhile, the vaccine manufacturer needs to know where the jabs are to be delivered three weeks before they ship.

Jabs and restrictions

"The faster you make a decision, the faster you can change the distribution," Tervahauta said.

Currently — and ever since the epidemic started in Finland — the densely populated region of Uusimaa, which includes Helsinki, has seen the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, accounting for just over two thirds of all cases. The region has also seen the highest need for Covid-19 medical treatment.

HUS chief doctor Mäkijärvi said that a change in vaccine distribution would benefit all of the country, not just Uusimaa, because many new coronavirus cases in other parts of the country originate from Uusimaa.

Nevertheless, Tervahauta said that the best measures to curb the spread of infections were following restrictions and recommendations issued by authorities. He noted that vaccinating risk groups means they will be protected from serious illness for the time being, but how the vaccinations will affect the epidemic overall will only be seen later on.

"A combination of carefully implemented restrictions as well as vaccines will take us towards a brighter spring," Tervahauta said.

Edited 09:20 01/04/2021 to clarify Markku Tervahauta's prior comments.

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