Finland is grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections, leading to strains on the healthcare system and adjustments in public health strategies. Hospitals in several cities are facing the need to reduce non-urgent services to accommodate the increasing number of COVID-19 patients. In the week of November 1st to November 7th, Finland recorded 2,676 symptomatic infections, with a significant portion of these cases requiring hospitalization.
The largest health district in Finland, serving west-central Pirkanmaa, has raised its preparedness level to high demand mode, indicating the severity of the situation. The district director, Marina Erhola, highlights the significant burden on the healthcare infrastructure due to the number of COVID-19 patients. In response to the escalating crisis, public health officials are recommending dual vaccinations for individuals aged 65 and above and those in high-risk groups, combining both seasonal influenza and COVID-19 shots.
However, the vaccination rollout has faced criticism, with Minister of Social Security Sanni Grahn-Laasonen acknowledging that it started too slowly. The Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) admitted that the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to regional health districts began too late, given the ongoing epidemic. Additionally, health districts are struggling with a lack of additional manpower, exacerbated by the expiration of extra government financing related to COVID-19.
Recent news coverage has revealed overwhelmed hospitals in multiple regions, resulting in extended waiting times and difficulties in securing vaccination appointments across the country. The Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS) has become a focal point, with nearly one-fifth of its patients receiving treatment for COVID-19. The infectious disease chief, Asko Järvinen, expressed concern over the situation, noting that the number of COVID-19 patients at HUS is surpassing levels observed during previous peaks of the epidemic.
The emergence of the Eris variant, also known as EG.5, has added complexity to the situation. This variant is highly immune evasive and presents challenges to previous infection or vaccination-based immunity, offering limited and short-lived protection. However, vaccinations have proven more effective than expected in preventing severe forms of the disease across different age groups. The evolving nature of the virus requires continuous adaptation of public health measures.
One significant change in the current surge is the increased prevalence of fever as a common COVID-19 symptom, particularly among the elderly. Asko Järvinen highlighted the rise in infections, which doubled weekly during October, leading to a higher number of hospitalizations. However, the severity of symptoms has shifted, with fewer cases of severe respiratory symptoms compared to earlier stages of the pandemic.
The elderly, due to their declining general health, are more susceptible to severe outcomes, emphasizing the need for vigilance within this demographic. The increase in COVID-19 cases has also resulted in higher admissions to intensive care units nationwide since mid-September. However, Professor Matti Reinikainen from Kuopio University Hospital emphasized the importance of booster shots and advised against panic.
Despite the challenges posed by the Eris variant, there is some optimism regarding the effectiveness of vaccinations and previous immunity in protecting against severe forms of the disease. Tuija Leino from THL emphasized the importance of booster vaccinations, particularly for those over 75-80 years old.
As Finland continues to navigate this autumn wave, public health experts stress the ongoing importance of preventive measures, such as staying home when sick, maintaining proper hygiene practices, and considering the use of masks in crowded settings. The evolving situation calls for a collaborative and adaptive approach to mitigate the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Finland.