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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.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - Health

Biden admin to boost COVID vaccine delivery to states for at least 3 weeks

Vice President Harris receives her second COVID-19 vaccine dose in Bethesda, Maryland, on Jan. 26. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration plans to increase its COVID-19 vaccine shipments to states and tribes from 8.6 million doses per week to 10 million for at least the next three weeks, as part of an effort to vaccinate the majority of the U.S. population by the end of this summer.

Why it matters: Hospitals in states across the U.S. say they are running out of vaccines and the country's death toll is sharply rising.

Updated 24 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Los Angeles County to require vaccination proof at indoor bars — France suspends 3,000 unvaccinated health workers without pay — Moderna suggests booster shots, citing clinical data.
  2. Health: 1 in 500 Americans has died — Cases are falling, but deaths are rising — Study: Gaps in data on Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders alarming amid COVID.
  3. Politics: Gottlieb says CDC hampered U.S. response — 26 states have limited state or local officials' public health powers — Axios-Ipsos poll: 60% of voters back Biden vaccine mandates.
  4. Education: Denver looks to students to close Latino vaccination gap — Federal judge temporarily blocks Iowa's ban on mask mandates in schools — Massachusetts activates National Guard to help with school transportation.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

AAPI leaders praise order on discrimination but say Biden needs to do more to "prioritize" community

President Biden on the left. Rep. Judy Chu on the right. Photos: Doug Mills-Pool (left) and Paul Morigi/WireImage for The Recording Academy (right) via Getty

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) lawmakers, community organizers and advocacy groups commended President Biden's Tuesday order directing an examination of anti-Asian bias and discrimination, but pushed the administration to commit to stronger action.

Why it matters: Anti-Asian hate crimes have surged since the pandemic began, reaching more than 2,500 in August according to Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks anti-AAPI racism.