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What you need to know about the coronavirus in Sweden

What you need to know about the coronavirus in Sweden
Denmark has closed its borders to Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
As of Monday afternoon, Sweden has reported more than 1,000 cases of the coronavirus, with every region in the country affected. Here's an overview of the situation. (paywall-free)

Editor's note: The situation around the novel coronavirus is changing rapidly, and this article is no longer being updated. Please click HERE for the latest updates and HERE for all our coronavirus coverage. 

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Summary (last updated March 16th, 4pm)

  • More than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Sweden
     
  • Six elderly people with the coronavirus have died in Sweden, five of them in Stockholm
     
  • All of Sweden's regions have now confirmed cases of the coronavirus
     
  • Sweden bans large public events for over 500 people
     
  • Members of the public advised to avoid “non-essential” visits to hospitals, care homes and elderly relatives, while several healthcare facilities have banned external visits
     
  • People aged over 70 are advised to stay home as much as possible
     
  • Stockholmers urged to work from home if possible
     
  • The government has temporarily scrapped the 'waiting day' for sick pay benefits

What is the situation in Sweden now?

Swedish health authorities believe the risk of the virus spreading in Sweden is “very high“, which is the highest possible level on a five-point scale and was upgraded from “moderate” on March 10th, following the first apparent case of community infection. Authorities had previously said that the risk of further individual cases occurring in Sweden “very high”.

As of Monday at 4pm, more than 1,000 people in Sweden had been confirmed to have the new coronavirus, also called COVID-19, according to figures from the Public Health Authority which are updated daily.

The first death in Sweden linked to the coronavirus was reported on March 11th in Stockholm. Another five people, all elderly, have since died after testing positive for the virus, five of them in Stockholm and one in Västra Götaland.

The vast majority of patients so far in Sweden have only experienced mild symptoms, and many have been able to be treated at home rather than hospital, according to authorities.

Thousands of people have been tested for the virus. But Swedish authorities are now moving away from testing every suspected case and instead focusing on protecting those people in vulnerable groups, especially the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.

That means anyone with any symptoms of the coronavirus (including a fever, cough or sore throat) is advised to stay at home and limit all social contact until they have been symptom-free for at least two days. If they are healthy they may well not be tested for the virus so that resources can be used for high priority cases.

On March 11th, the government announced that it would ban all large events, defined as those for more than 500 people, following a request from the Public Health Agency in a bid to delay the spread of the virus. This applies only to public events (such as sporting events, concerts and trade fairs, but not schools, workplaces, shopping malls or cruises) and no end date has been put in place.

The same day, the government announced that it is temporarily scrapping the 'karensdag' – the first unpaid day of sick leave – in response to the coronavirus. This means that people who take leave from work due to sickness will receive sick pay from the moment their absence begins. The decision came into effect immediately on March 11th, and will last for a month and a half.

And on March 16th, the Public Health Agency made a further announcement urging older people to stay at home if at all possible. They also asked people to work from home if possible, especially in Stockholm where the community spread of the virus appears to be greatest.

The government has not decided to close schools, as in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, but a new framework is being introduced which would give principals or school directors more authority to decide themselves how best to prevent the spread of the virus at school. That means schools may change the length or timing of the school year, when subjects should be studied, or decide to hold lessons at weekend or online. Or schools may close if so many teachers fall ill that it affects the level of education.

Denmark on March 14th effectively closed its borders. Danish citizens or people with a valid reason to be there, such as Swedish residents working in Denmark, are still allowed in. However, it does mean that people in southern Sweden will not be able to use their closest airport, Copenhagen, for the time being.

The Local is answering your most-asked questions about the coronavirus in this article.

How has the situation developed in Sweden?

The first case of the coronavirus was reported in Jönköping at the end of January. She has now left hospital and is fully recovered, an infectious disease doctor in Jönköping told The Local.

But like many European countries, Sweden experienced a second and larger 'wave' of cases linked to the outbreak of the virus in Italy, the country hardest hit in Europe.

Sweden's second case, a man in Gothenburg who fell ill after visiting Italy, was confirmed on February 26th. After that, the number of cases grew with many linked to Sweden's February winter sports holidays, which many families spend in ski resorts including in the Alps.

By mid-March, just under half of the infections in Sweden were linked to recent travel to Italy, and many others were due to travel or direct contact with people who have the virus, with other countries including Iran, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States. 

On March 10th, the Public Health Agency said there were signs of so-called community infection in the Stockholm healthcare region and Västra Götaland in western Sweden, but no widespread such outbreak in Sweden as a whole. 

“We're talking about a handful of people that we can classify as domestic cases. Perhaps fewer than ten,” Public Health Agency director-general Johan Carlson told a press conference on March 10th. 
 
Health officials stressed that it could not confirm that the virus was spreading in Sweden, but said that because there were a few cases where they could not link it to anything else, it could not be ruled out.

This was the reasoning for shifting from measures focused at detection and containment to a focus on reducing and delaying the spread of infection.
 
How has Sweden reacted?

The measures introduced in Sweden first focused on tracking down so-called imported cases (where the patient was infected overseas) and contact tracing of those cases (identifying and contacting people who had been in close contact with the patient).

As of March, the strategy has changed slightly, with a greater focus on limiting and delaying the spread of the virus in society and preparing the healthcare system to care for the most seriously ill patients.

On March 11th, the government said it would ban all gatherings of over 500 people following a request from the Public Health Agency. That applies to sporting events, trade fairs and concerts for example, but not workplaces, private weddings or shopping malls.

Several schools have closed after confirmed cases of students with the coronavirus, but the Public Health Agency said on March 12th there was no “active discussion” about ordering the closure of schools nationwide — as has happened in neighbouring Norway and Denmark. 

The agency has previously said it judges this measure to be ineffective at stopping spread of infection, when weighed up against the potential negative impact on the economy and society. Instead, children should stay home from school if they have any symptoms which could be linked to the coronavirus. However, heads of schools will be given increased powers to change how the school is run, including changing the length of the school year and offering distance learning for example.

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A large number of elderly care homes and hospitals have introduced a ban on visits in order to reduce the risk of the virus being spread among the more at-risk age groups. 

This came after advice from the Public Health Agency that people (even if not showing any symptoms) should avoid all unnecessary visits to hospitals, care homes and elderly relatives, and that people aged over 70 should stay home as much as possible.

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The risk of the virus spreading in Sweden was upgraded from “very low” to “low” on February 25th, then to “moderate” on March 2nd, and to “very high” on March 10th, following developments both in Sweden and globally. 

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What should I do about foreign travel?

Unlike many other countries, such as its neighbours Norway and Denmark, Sweden has said it will not close its borders at this stage. Swedish health authorities say it is not an effective measure when it comes to limiting the spread of the virus, and Danish health authorities confirmed that when asked by reporters.

The director of Denmark's Public Health Agency, Sundhedsstyrelsen, told reporters that the decision to close his country's borders was mainly “political” and was not a measure his team had recommended.

That said, Sweden's foreign ministry on March 14th changed its travel recommendations to advise against all non-essential international travel to anywhere in the world. Previously it had been advising people to avoid travelling to countries and regions particularly affected by the virus, such as Italy and China.

The decision to advise against international travel is not directly linked to concerns of the spread of infection, but rather the fact that many countries have been closing their borders or changing their rules for travel within the country, which means that visitors may struggle to get back home to their countries.

Sweden recommends that people who have any kind of cold or flu symptoms stay at home and limit all social contact until they have been symptom-free for at least two days.

Some companies in Sweden have been asking employees returning from affected areas to work from home for 14 days on their return as a precaution, while others have cancelled all business travel. Many companies are choosing to let staff work from home wherever possible regardless of travel or symptoms.

The most severely affected country in Europe so far is Italy, where more than 10,000 people have been infected and the government has shut down all businesses except essential services as a result.

READ ALSO: Follow the latest coverage on the coronavirus from The Local Italy

What is the coronavirus?

It's a respiratory illness and initially similar to a common cold, at least in terms of the symptoms experienced by many people.

However, some patients, and especially those who belong to vulnerable groups, go on to develop more serious symptoms and the virus has a mortality rate several times higher than that of influensa.

The outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan – which is an international transport hub – began at a fish market in late December and since then more than 6,500 people have died, with around 170,000 confirmed cases globally. More than 77,000 people have recovered, according to Johns Hopkins CSSE.

A lot is still unknown about the virus. According to the World Health Organisation, 80 percent of those who are infected with the virus only suffer mild symptoms such as a headache or sore throat. Around five percent end up in a critical condition, disproportionately older people and those with pre-existing health conditions.

What are the symptoms?

The initial symptoms are not dissimilar to the common cold – as the virus belongs to the same family – or flu. The symptoms include a cough, headache, fatigue, fever, aching and difficulty breathing.

It is primarily spread through airborne contact or contact with contaminated objects.

Its incubation period is two to 14 days, with an average of seven days.

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Hospital staff wash the entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre. Photo: AP Photo/Dake Kang

How can I protect myself?

Health authorities recommend practising good hygiene, so washing your hands and using sanitizer gel regularly (particularly if you have been touching surfaces that many other people will have touched such as on public transport), avoiding touching your face, using disposable tissues and throwing them away and covering your mouth with your elbow when you cough.

If you are healthy, you may be most concerned about what you can do to avoid contributing to the spread of the virus. People have also been advised to avoid unnecessary visits to hospitals and care homes in order to reduce the risk of the infection spreading among the most vulnerable people in society. And the most crucial thing to do is to stay at home if you feel at all sick, even if your symptoms are barely noticeable.

What should I do if I think I have it?

If you have symptoms that are consistent with the coronavirus, including a dry continuous cough or a fever, you should stay at home and avoid social contact until you've been symptom-free for at least two days, according to the Public Health Agency. That applies even if the symptoms are extremely mild.

Don't go to a hospital or doctor's surgery, but call 1177 if you're feeling very unwell (or the emergency number 112 if it's an emergency situation) and get advice from a medical professional.

Otherwise, if you have symptoms but are otherwise fit and healthy, consider avoiding the 1177 helpline. It has had a much higher number of calls than usual recently, making it harder for people who need healthcare advice to get through, so you're advised only to call if you are feeling very ill.

If it's an option for you, check 1177's website instead. If you have symptoms but are otherwise in good health, it's likely that you won't be tested for the virus, as Sweden is focusing on putting its resources towards protecting the most vulnerable people in society.

But make sure that you limit contact with other people as much as possible if you get sick, to help limit the spread of the virus.

In an emergency situation, you should always call the emergency number 112.

And if you have questions about the virus but do not need medical advice yourself, you can call 113 13.

Swedish vocabulary

fever – feber

headache – huvudvärk

cough – hosta

breathing difficulties – svårigheter att andas

a cold – (en) förkylning

the flu – influensan

the coronavirus – coronaviruset

***

Hello,
 
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All the best,
Emma
Editor, The Local Sweden

Member comments

  1. For correctness the corona virus in NOT the same family as influenza as stated in the article and is very different genetically. While there is some overlap in symptoms the problem with this new corona virus is its ability to cause serious respiratory problems.

  2. It can easily get here though, all it takes is a Swede to walk through an infected cough at any airport around the world….And, when it gets here, I am wearing masks. Swedes are incredibly dirty, they spit and hoink in the streets, barely cover their faces when cough or sneeze, yucky!

  3. One of the major problems is the frequency of asymptomatic carriers of the virus. A recent study suggests more than 50% of carriers are not picked up by screening. Worrying!

  4. The bigger concern from my perspective is the overall impact to the global economy and supply chain if more and more cities and countries around the world go into lock down.

  5. Has Sweden run out of test kits? Why would you not want to collect data through testing? I smell story here!

  6. How worried should you be in Sweden?
    At present I would suggest – extremely worried.

    Despite WHO calls for “testing, testing, testing” Sweden actually STOPPED testing on 11/03/2020 for all but at risk groups (elderly) and those already very sick. In other words, for a week already now Sweden has no record of those with symptoms who have contact with already infected or contagion risk regions.
    Couple this with not locking down schools and the overly relaxed messaging coming from officials and you have a recipe for the disasters that happened in Wuhan itself followed by Italy and Iran. – Sweden’s limited critical care resources could easily be overwhelmed once a silent spread impacts enough people who suddenly need critical care.
    Rather than attempt to “flatten the curve” everything Sweden is doing seems set to result in a sudden and unexpected spike in cases which because of lack of testing data will take them by surprise.

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