Oct 19, 2020 - Health

Sweden's top epidemiologist defends coronavirus strategy

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Swedish Public Health Agency holds a press conference updating on the coronavirus pandemic
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Swedish Public Health Agency holds a press conference updating on the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency/AFP

Anders Tegnell, Sweden's chief epidemiologist, defended his country's coronavirus strategy in an interview with the New Statesman, telling the newspaper that Sweden did not pursue "herd immunity" and "definitely had a virtual lockdown" — despite looser restrictions than most countries.

Why it matters: Sweden's more relaxed approach to the pandemic compared to other industrialized countries has been a source of controversy, with many libertarians and conservatives, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), arguing that the U.S. should have pursued a similar strategy.

Context: Schools, restaurants, and bars in Sweden were never closed. Masks were not recommended. And while the government did limit public gatherings to 50 people, the restriction did not apply to all circumstances.

  • The country has seen one of the world's highest mortality rates among wealthy countries — around 58 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 11.58 in neighboring Denmark, 6.24 in Finland and 5.09 in Norway.
  • Sweden managed to suppress the spread of the virus after a June peak, but is now seeing a rise in infections like most of Europe.

What he's saying: In the interview, published Monday, Tegnell said, “I want to make it clear, no, we did not lock down like many other countries, but we definitely had a virtual lockdown.”

  • “Swedes changed their behaviour enormously. We stopped travelling even more than our neighbouring countries. The airports had no flights anywhere, the trains were running at a few per cent of normal service, so there were enormous changes in society," he added.
  • Tegnell said to suggest the country pursued "herd immunity" would be incorrect. "In common with other countries we’re trying to slow down the spread as much as possible... To imply that we let the disease run free without any measures to try to stop it is not true," he said.
  • Tegnell said any genuine herd immunity strategy would "rapidly overwhelm your health service and possibly cause a number of deaths indefinitely and leave people with long-term consequences. If you can avoid that I would say that you definitely should.”

Worth noting: On Monday, Sweden's regional health authorities will have more power to ask for recommendations specific to their localities, per The Local Sweden.

  • Previously, such recommendations were only issued at the national level.
  • The measures have been described by officials as "strong recommendations," but they're still not legal binding.
  • Residents may be instructed to avoid public transportation, unnecessary travel outside of a particular region, indoor environments and other places where groups may gather, according to The Local.
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