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Wide regional variation in coronavirus tracing success

Fewer than half of people who test positive in Finland's capital region can identify the source of their infection.

Vantaan kaupungin koronaviruksen drive in -testauspiste Pakkalassa
HUS conducts coronavirus tests in Uusimaa at over ten different sites. This photo is from a drive-in testing point in the city of Vantaa in May. Image: Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva

There are large regional differences in the tracing of coronavirus infections in Finland. For example, in the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) fewer than half of those infected can tell where they became infected.

If the patient knows the source of the infection, it is usually found to a person living in the same household, a friend, or a co-worker.

According to Eeva Ruotsalainen, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at HUS, people named as having been exposed are successfully traced. However, tracing of infection chains does not take place in cases where the infection has been acquired from a public space, such as on public transport.

"Tracing has required a huge number of employees, and because of that, it worked well throughout the pandemic spring. Capacity has been well covered for the summer and autumn," she says.

Most cases of coronavirus in Finland have been diagnosed in the HUS area.

Infections from abroad

According to Arto Rantala, Regional Director of the Hospital District of Southwest Finland, it has been possible to trace 75 percent of the coronavirus infections confirmed in his region.

The infection situation in Southwest Finland is calm, as according to Rantala, 6-7 new cases are identified every week.

"As far as I know, we do not have any confirmed cases whose infection route has not been determined," Rantala says about recent cases, adding that coronavirus infections in Southwest Finland have often originated from abroad.

These infections may have been acquired, for example, from a business trip or through foreign contacts.

Markku Broas, Chief Physician of Infectious Diseases of the Lapland Hospital District, says that all of the coronavirus infections detected in the region can be traced back to their origin.

"In July, there was only one case chain the source of which could not be identified," he relates.

According to Broas, recent infections are mainly sourced to Sweden. It is therefore important for anyone crossing the Swedish border to follow the instructions and apply for coronavirus testing even if only mild symptoms appear.

Broas also stresses the importance of two weeks of voluntary quarantine to prevent the spread of infections.

Impact of lifting restrictions not yet seen

Some of the restrictions on restaurant opening hours, drinking hours, and customer numbers were lifted on 13 July. At the same time, nightclubs were allowed to open their doors again.

The lifting of restrictions has not yet been reflected in the number of infections, as any symptoms usually show up only two weeks after being infected.

"We have a few cases of exposure at bar terraces, but only after a delay of 2-3 weeks can we assess the impact of the lifting of an individual restrictive measure," Eeva Ruotsalainen points out.

In Southwest Finland, the effects of lifting restrictions has also not yet been seen in the infection statistics.

"But, there is a fear that it will show. An increase in infections is possible regulations haven't been observed," Rantala says.

Ruotsalainen sees a risk that the number of coronavirus infections will start to increase in August, when schools reopen and the recommendation to telecommute, when possible, ends.

From the beginning of August, indoor events for more than 500 people are also permitted.

According to Ruotsalainen , a second wave of the coronavirus in the autumn is possible.

"By that time, virtually all restrictions will have been lifted, with the exception of travel to and from some destinations abroad. This has the potential for an increase in infections and a second wave if people don’t take precautions," she warns.

Markku Broas notes it is expected that the number of cases of infection may start to increase once restrictions are lifted.

"You should still remember hygiene instructions. In the future, we will definitely have to consider using face masks in places where there are a lot of people," Broas predicts.

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