More than 60,000 confirmed cases of infection, more than 1,300 people died (most of them in China) and a ray of hope: more than 6,200 people who have contracted the disease but have recovered.
Those are, today, the large numbers of the epidemic of COVID-19 (as it has been renamed). These are scary figures that have led the Government of Finland to include this novel virus in the list of generally hazardous communicable diseases.
The amendment to the Government Decree on Communicable Diseases will enter into force on 14 February.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health explained that a communicable disease is labeled as "generally hazardous" if it is highly infectious, dangerous and its spread can be prevented by measures (such as a quarantine or isolation) aimed at persons who have contracted the disease, been exposed to the pathogen or are justifiably suspected to have been infected or exposed.
The effects of this change
Until now, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus had been considered a communicable disease that is justifiably suspected of being generally hazardous.
Based on this suspicion alone, a physician in charge of communicable diseases in public service may decide on quarantining a person who has been exposed to the disease but is without symptoms, and isolating an infected person, as well as ordering persons working in certain tasks to stay away from work. However, the classification as a generally hazardous infectious disease clarifies the situation.
Like other coronaviruses, the novel coronavirus identified in China may cause a mild or severe disease (COVID-19). There is currently no information available on how common the milder forms of the disease are since the most severe cases are typically detected first at the beginning of an epidemic.
The structure of the new virus and its modes of transmission are similar to the previously known coronaviruses SARS and MERS, which cause serious diseases and are already in the list of generally hazardous communicable diseases.
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. All countries must therefore actively monitor infections caused by the novel coronavirus, identify cases of the disease early, isolate the infected persons and trace the people who have been exposed to the infection to prevent further infections.
Quarantine or isolation?
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the doctor responsible for communicable diseases may assign a person without symptoms or their possessions to quarantine if that person has been exposed to a generally hazardous communicable disease.
The purpose of quarantine is to prevent the spread of the communicable disease into the population by restricting the person’s movements. The person is normally quarantined at their home. The doctor may end the quarantine once it has been confirmed that the person does not have the disease. The quarantine period is usually no longer than a couple of weeks.
According to the Communicable Diseases Act, a person can be placed in isolation if they have been exposed to a generally hazardous communicable disease and had symptoms of the disease.
The purpose of isolation is to prevent the spread of the communicable disease into the population by limiting the person’s movements and treating the communicable disease as quickly as possible. The patient is placed in isolation in a hospital, where they are examined and treated in accordance with the Health Care Act.