Sweden, whose softer approach to fighting COVID-19 drew global attention, has one of the EU’s highest rates of new cases, but authorities say the spread is slowing.
In the past two weeks, Sweden was only second to Luxembourg in the EU in terms of new cases per capita, with new infections more than six times the EU average.
Unlike most European nations, Sweden never imposed a lockdown and made headlines for its high death toll.
It has kept schools for under-16s open, and has not shuttered cafes, bars, restaurants and most businesses. Masks have been recommended only for healthcare personnel.
Over the past 60 days, Sweden has seen a drastic increase in the number of new cases, but authorities stress that serious COVID-19 cases and associated deaths have declined.
“If you increase testing you will find more cases, but the more serious cases, those who become sick and need hospital care, have rather decreased,” Swedish Deputy State Epidemiologist Anders Wallensten said.
Sweden in May was testing about 30,000 people a week, but throughout last month that was scaled up and this month the figure has more than doubled.
On May 31, Sweden had recorded 39,160 cases. On Thursday, the number had almost doubled at 76,877, but deaths had only increased by a little more than 20 percent to 5,593.
The rising number of cases late last month led the WHO’s European branch to put Sweden on a list of 11 nations witnessing an “accelerated transmission,” but Swedish State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell criticized that decision, calling it a “total misinterpretation” of the data.
The Swedish Public Health Agency instead has repeatedly said that the large increase is mostly made up of milder cases, which would have previously gone unnoticed.
Swedish Public Health Agency Department of Microbiology Director Karin Tegmark Wisell said that the decline in serious cases is also likely a product of barrier gestures.
“People have learned how to relate to the disease, to keep distance. We have become better at protecting the risk groups,” Tegmark Wisell said.
University of Geneva professor of public health Antoine Flahault said that Sweden’s mistake was not the lack of a lockdown, but late mass testing.
“What is really sad for Sweden is that it did not combine the ambitious policy with massive testing,” Flahault said.
Flahault said that while the number of deaths was still significant, the high mortality rate was more due to shortfalls in testing than not shuttering schools, bars or restaurants.
Testing milder cases allows these people to self-isolate for fear of “contaminating their families,” he said.
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