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Last Week in Sweden: a Covid Report (December 20 – 27, 2020)

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, I’ve been summarizing on a weekly basis the most important and talked about happenings from a Swedish perspective. This is week 52 (December 20 – 27, 2020).

(This article was originally posted in Swedish)

8,279 people have now died with Covid-19 in Sweden; an increase of 286 reported deaths compared to last week. This is an unusually low increase when compared with recent weeks, but is likely due to the fact that the Christmas holidays have delayed reporting. According to Adam Altmejd’s forecast, the death toll continues on a plateau of around 70 deaths per day, possibly trending slightly upward, but it’s difficult to determine right now. It is clear that the excess mortality rate – the figure that determines how many people are currently dying, compared with previous years – is abnormally high.

If we instead look at the most recently reported full week, week 51, the spread of infection is still extensive throughout the country, but above all in half of the country’s regions. The week before Christmas showed testing numbers were again at a record level, with a total of 287,000 people being tested. Unfortunately, a record number of positive cases were also reported: a total of 46,210 confirmed cases, or just over 16 percent of those tested.

Light purple: number of people tested; dark purple: analysed tests
X-axis: week / Y-axis: number

The burden on healthcare remains extreme. I write this sentence every week and still new record numbers are reported every week. In Stockholm (shown to the far right in the graph below), numbers have plateaued, but at a very high level, something of concern for the regional administration. The trend is also unusual, as the spring peak was followed by a rapid decline. It remains worse, however, for the rest of the country, which is now up to about 40 percent higher hospital occupancy than during the spring peak.

That the spread of infection isn’t decreasing has made it difficult to create prognostic scenarios for the future. This week, the Swedish Public Health Agency released a scenario that would help the healthcare system with forward planning, but the scenario has already proved wrong for Stockholm. The authority’s scenario was however based on unchanged behavior, and during the runup to Christmas we have crowded into stores and shopping centers and – as in Södertäljeattended weddings with hundreds of guests. Even during the days after Christmas, crowding has continued in shopping centers in Stockholm, despite the fact that new recommendations came into force this week: every store and shopping center must now set its own maximum number of visitors allowed on the premises at any one time. On top of that, more and more people are now traveling to the Swedish mountains to celebrate Christmas and New Year. All of this worries infection control doctors, and entails an ever-increasing risk that the entire Christmas holiday will be canceled for an already very severely embattled medical staff.

The mutated, more contagious coronavirus strain has been found in Sweden. It arrived with a man who flew to Sweden and then traveled in a large car or bus – wearing a face mask and with the windows down – to celebrate Christmas. He only began to show symptoms after he arrived at his accommodation in Sörmland (the region bordering Stockholm to the south and west), after which he got tested. Others in the household have so far tested negative and the risk that the person has infected more is considered to be virtually non-existent. At the same time, in Sörmland alone, 50 people arriving from the UK have asked to be tested. The risk is of course that more people have entered the country with the virus.

Since Monday evening, Sweden has closed its border to visitors from the UK (where the mutated virus was first found) and Denmark (where it was also found, albeit on a smaller scale) for non-Swedish citizens. Despite this, a plane from the UK still managed to land in Sweden, due to a misunderstanding. Those traveling from the UK are not tested at the border, but are instead encouraged to go home and arrange to be tested there.

Whether the mutated virus is actually more contagious has been cause for divided opinions, including skepticism from State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. The vaccines that are now available should also work just as well on mutations of the virus.

The vaccine has arrived in Sweden – and the first people have already been vaccinated. Several regions in Sweden received the vaccine on Sunday, after it was approved by the EU. About ten thousand doses were delivered, divided into two doses for five thousand people. The doses are taken at a three-week interval and it is first and foremost elderly people in care homes and their staff who are set to be vaccinated. In the next phase, people over the age of 70 and risk groups will receive the vaccine, followed by the rest of the population. 80,000 doses per week will now be delivered and everyone who wants to can be vaccinated before 1 July. Professor Agnes Wold believes that we won’t see the effect of the vaccine before March, as it will take time before younger people – who are responsible for a larger share of the spread of infection – are vaccinated. The long-term effects, and how long immunity lasts, are still unclear. It is also unclear whether pregnant women should be vaccinated.

Sweden’s new proposal for pandemic legislation has received harsh criticism this week. The law is set to give the government powers to shut down more parts of Sweden. The criticism has come partly from the Justice Ombudsman and partly from the Public Health Agency. Parliament is, however, preparing to be able to adopt the law and has been recalled from the Christmas holidays for an extra vote. At the same time, more comprehensive crisis legislation is being prepared which would entail changes to the constitution, meaning it wouldn’t be ready any earlier than 2026.

These new political measures are a way for the government to show movement on the criticism that has been developing against the Swedish strategy. Both the Left Party and the Moderates have this week stated that Sweden’s strategy was a failure. The Prime Minister thinks that Sweden has made reasonable decisions.

Face masks – all staff and visitors in all healthcare premises must now wear face masks. This is in accordance with updated recommendations from the Swedish Public Health Agency, with the reason for the update given as developments in their current state of expertise and access to new information. The government has previously announced that face masks are to be worn during busier periods on public transport, and the Public Health Agency is due to issue more detailed guidance on this before January 7.

This week’s news in brief:

Finally:

The Christmas holidays have not been the same as usual for most Swedes, and this embroidery picked up widespread attention this week. Translating as “sooner a Christmas in front of the computer than hooked up to a ventilator”, it served as a kind of reminder of what we’re fighting against. I don’t know who to credit for the original, but feel free to let me know!

That’s all for this week, let me know in the comments if you think there’s something missing!

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