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THL's Salminen: "Too much attention" paid to worst-case-scenario infection figures

The Justice Ministry said that the THL prognosis was among the factors in the decision to postpone municipal elections.

Mika Salminen Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitoksen infossa
Mika Salminen, Director of the THL's Department for Health Security, said he did not believe the ministry misinterpreted the figures (file photo). Image: Pekka Tynell / Yle

According to the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), its calculation that daily new coronavirus cases could exceed 11,000 by April was mainly a theoretical exercise that has received too much attention. The Justice Ministry said that the THL prognosis was among the factors in the decision to postpone municipal elections from April to June.

Mika Salminen, Director of the THL's Department for Health Security, told Yle on Sunday that the main purpose of the calculation was to show what exponential growth would mean if it was not curbed at all.

The document, which the THL published on Saturday evening, predicts that if current infection trends continue unabated, Finland could see daily new infection levels of 2,600-11,200 by mid-April. So far, the highest daily number of new infections was 797 cases, last Wednesday.

The upper-end calculation does not take into account the effect of new restrictions but were purely mathematical curves based on infection trends, Salminen said.

He added that "too much attention" has been paid to the figures, but that he did not believe the ministry had misinterpreted them.

According to Salminen, the worst-case scenarios will not be realised, since the restrictions planned for the next few weeks are likely to lower the infectivity rate.

"The purpose was to illustrate the worst that could happen if nothing is done," he said.

"Impossible to predict the exact timing"

However, he said it was difficult to make precise calculations or models of the effects of the planned three-week closure of restaurants, bars and many schools and other facilities, which begins next week.

"It is impossible to predict the exact timing of changes in the situation," Salminen said.

The Ministry of Justice said on Saturday that the THL prognosis was one of the factors that influenced the decision to postpone the municipal elections. The delay was agreed by representatives of all but one of the parliamentary parties at a meeting with Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson (SPP).

Salminen said he does not believe that the figures were interpreted too literally in the decision-making process.

"There were much more relevant things in our statement than the figures themselves. We can’t tell what the incidence rates would be on election day, but they’ve gone up quite fast within a week," he said.

The number of new lab-confirmed infections nationwide surpassed 62,000 on Saturday, up by some 4,400 in the past week. In the past two weeks, there have been 8,300 new cases nationally. That is over 2,000 more than during the previous fortnight.

In early February, the THL published alternative scenarios, according to which variations of the virus are likely to take over, even under a partial lockdown.

Salminen noted that no clear solution been found for how quarantined people will be able exercise their right to vote, if there are large numbers of them by election day.

Most in risk groups to be vaccinated by June

In its prognosis handed to Henriksson on Friday, the THL noted that due to seasonal variations "it is more likely that by late May and early June the epidemic will be in a calmer phase than on 18 April and that a larger proportion of the [most at-risk] population will be protected by vaccinations" by then.

According to Salminen, it is important to keep in mind that not all risk groups will be vaccinated by mid-April. The THL report predicts that most will have been inoculated by late May or early June, though.

The institute predicts that 70 percent of the population – enough to achieve herd immunity – will have gotten the jab by late September, based on current rates of vaccination.

That could speed up if the EU approves the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Thursday, for instance.

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