Sweden Capital – Close to Herd Immunity

Sweden is confident they see a light at the end of the current pandemic tunnel. One indicator is the country’s capital nearing herd immunity. Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, tells USA Today, “We think that up to 25% of people in Stockholm have been exposed to coronavirus and are possibly immune. A recent survey from one of our hospitals in Stockholm found that 27% of staff there are immune. We think that most of those are immune from transmission in society, not the workplace. We could reach herd immunity in Stockholm within a matter of weeks.”

Sweden, unlike many other nations, has not taken a hardline approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in mass economic shutdowns and surging unemployment elsewhere. In the U.S. alone, more than 30 million people are now jobless. In contrast, Sweden’s response to the pandemic has largely been “business as usual.” Bars, restaurants, libraries, public pools, and most schools remain open in the nation of 10 million, drawing ire from critics skeptical of the country’s approach.

The spread of any virus slows dramatically as more people develop the antibodies to fight the virus and are no longer able to spread it. In Stockholm, home to approximately two million residents, achieving herd immunity would account for roughly 20% of the county’s total population. This would certainly slow the spread of COVID-19, though it is far below the herd immunity threshold of 60% to 70% experts estimate is needed for the virus.

As we head into May, Sweden’s COVID-19 death toll stands just over 2,500, with nearly half of all fatalities occurring in nursing homes, where visits have been banned since March 31. “We have taken reasonable measures without without really hurting health care or schools,” said Tegnell. “We are going for a sustainable strategy; something we can keep doing for months.” As Sweden continues its targeted approach to tackling the pandemic, time will tell if that holds true.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) praised the Swedish model. “What [Sweden] has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of its citizens to implement self-distancing and self-regulate,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the agency’s top emergencies expert. “In that sense, they have implemented public policy through that partnership with the population.”

Making social distancing more a matter of personal responsibility than a government mandate is at the heart of Sweden’s coronavirus strategy. “I think there’s a perception out that Sweden has not put in control measures and just has allowed the disease to spread,” Ryan told reporters. “Nothing can be further from the truth.” In addition to prohibiting nursing home visits, Sweden has banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Citizens were asked to work from home, if possible, and urged those over 70 to self-isolate as a precaution.

I have seen news reports that say Sweden model’s has had terrible results, but I am not clear where that data is coming from. Sweden has a slightly larger population than New York City, with similar exposure levels, but with a far lower death rate. As of April 28, NYC had 12,000 reported deaths out of eight million people whereas Sweden had 2,300 out of 10 million.

I further mapped out some countries death rates vs. their populations and Sweden’s is not especially high.

Death Rates.jpg

What is different is that Sweden has not done as much self inflicted economic damage nor do they fear a second wave of the virus as much as other countries do when they relax their lockdowns. Both of these things sound amazing.

America has had lockdowns for some time now, and the data is showing that Sweden may not be wrong in taking a less restrictive approach. In a recent Spiked article by political scientist Wilfred Reilly, he discusses the lack of empirical evidence to support that lockdowns have been more effective than well-done social-distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Analyzing data from the Worldometers Coronavirus project, Reilly found that the states that issued more self-regulating social-distancing rules at the pandemic’s onset fared favorably against those states that were quick to issue shelter-in-place orders (even after excluding New York – the extreme outlier of bad results). Comparing the two groups, (minus New York), “the social-distancing states experienced 663 fewer cases per million and 42 fewer deaths per million on average than the lockdown states.”

I am a proponent of the Swedish model for managing this outbreak. Individual freedom and personal responsibility are hallmarks of the American way. People know COVID-19 is serious, but each person’s circumstances are unique. I believe being able to address them as they see fit is better than any “one size fits all” mandate. My own situation has changed dramatically at times throughout this pandemic.  For example, a friends’ child was with my family and I during spring break because his mother was undergoing chemotherapy treatment and his father had to travel for work. After spring break, he stayed with us for two additional weeks, and we had to be very strict with our quarantine to ensure he did not bring anything home to his immunocompromised mother. After he went home, we no longer felt the need for any exceptional virus controls given that we are all lower risk. And if we do get the virus, we figure we are doing our part to create herd immunity to protect those who cannot afford to catch it.

Stay safe, stay strong!