Politicians and health officials alike have been propping up Sweden as a case study for months now in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.
Sweden took some precautions but didn’t institute nationwide lockdown policies in order to protect its economy and schools from the worst ravages of the virus, to mixed results. In the spring, the country’s death rate per million citizens spiked to rival the United States’ and drew sharp criticism from around the world, with many officials calling Sweden a warning against lax virus policies.
Now, Europe and parts of the U.S. are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Sweden’s case load has sharply spiked as well, but hospitalizations and deaths remain low, aside from a slight bump at the end of October that pushed the country of 10 million past the 6,000 deaths threshold. (Hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators and could appear in the next week or two.) The country has instituted new mild isolation recommendations, including working from home and capping some indoor gatherings.
It’s time to re-evaluate Sweden’s COVID-19 strategy.
The National Center for Biotechnology Innovation at the end of August published a study that called Sweden’s approach “evidence-based,” stating that the “health care system in the country has never been overwhelmed and thus it is possible to conclude that ‘flattening the curve’ has been successful.”
It goes on to point out that while Sweden experienced a horrifically higher death rate among its elderly population compared to other Nordic countries, the severity of lockdowns does not directly correlate with deaths. Other factors like age and obesity are also relevant.
It’s also worth noting that Swedes do not wear masks in rates comparable to other European countries.
While many in the media and public health expressed anger with Sweden for apparently sacrificing the elderly population to preserve the economy, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell denies that any such exchange was premeditated and shifted blame to nursing homes not following state directives.
The grisly reality of Sweden’s death count aligns with much of the U.S. in that a majority of deaths — more than 70% — were concentrated in nursing facilities or in homes with in-home services for senior citizens.
Currently, researchers believe that the virus is spreading primarily through the 20- to 29-year-old population, so even though infection rates are returning to levels comparable with the spring, deaths are not shooting up proportionally.
As with all COVID-19 data, researchers are working with an incomplete picture. Not everyone who catches the virus is tested, not everyone who dies registers as a COVID-19 death. Some who tested positive and die have comorbidities that make it difficult to say whether the virus was primarily responsible for their deaths.
Comparing countries’ responses and data is important in identifying best practices in handling the virus. The point isn’t to harangue countries for their mistakes, but rather to celebrate and share data on the successes.
It’s premature to consider Sweden a success, especially given the early fatality rate and current conditions, but it should not yet be discounted as a failure. If anything, the newly rising figures only continue to reveal how little is known about the virus and how careful leaders must be in deducing conclusions.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)