How is Sweden tracking down suspected coronavirus cases?

How is Sweden tracking down suspected coronavirus cases?
Doctors and infectious disease experts hold a press conference in Gothenburg. Photo: Thomas Johansson / TT
The spread of the new coronavirus across the world, with many cases in Europe linked to travel to Italy, has prompted intensive work to track down people who are considered at possible risk of infection.
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“The time to stop the spread of the infection is now. The whole effort of disease control focuses on contact tracing,” said infectious disease doctor Leif Dotevall. 

The number of confirmed cases in Sweden has risen daily this week, thought to have been given a boost by the February school holidays which are typically spent skiing. Many people returned to Sweden from northern Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe and the source of most of Sweden's confirmed cases.

Each new confirmed case leads to contact tracing, meaning that authorities try to establish everyone who the infected person had been in close contact with following their infection. This means speaking to the patient about their recent movements, and contacting others such as patients' employers, public transport companies, or schools in order to reach everyone who may have been in close contact with the patient.

“All these people are traced and contacted. Partly to check that they aren't showing symptoms, partly to give instructions on how they should act until you can declare the danger over,” said Dotevall. You can read the World Health Organisation's information about contact tracing here.

For example, one case involved a man who returned to Gothenburg after a trip in Milan. He travelled home from Stockholm on the train, at which point he was believed to have symptoms of the virus, so authorities were able to trace the people who had been sitting in the seats closest to the man.


So far, most of Sweden's cases have been linked to travel to northern Italy, and Dotevall says most patients have been “extremely aware of this and have contacted healthcare services themselves via [helpline number] 1177”. None of the patients who had tested positive for the virus as of Friday morning had gone in person to a doctors' office. 

Around 80 percent of those infected with the virus suffer only mild symptoms according to the World Health Organisation, with groups such as the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions particularly at risk.

Although the vast majority of those who catch coronavirus are likely to make a full recovery, Dotevall stressed the importance of discovering these cases:

“In a functioning society, we protect those who are most vulnerable. All measures that are being taken have a single goal and that is to try to prevent people in at-risk groups getting sick,” he said.

A doctor in protective clothing at an infectious disease clinic in Kalmar. Photo: Mikael Fritzon / TT

If contact tracing is successful, it can be possible to contain a virus, but Dotevall added: “There is a situation where this kind of contact tracing is no longer meaningful. But we aren't there yet.”

This work is taking place at a regional level, since in Sweden it is the country's 21 regions which govern healthcare, with collaboration across regional borders.

“We are having to use a lot of overtime, and we will need more people working with this. The region has a clear plan of how to do this,” said Dotevall, who works in Västra Götaland. The region confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, on February 26th, and since then has been working to trace people who could have been infected since then. 

It's a similar situation in Stockholm, where as of Friday more than half of the country's confirmed cases were located. Around 20 people in each region were working on contact tracing.

“We are moving resources and re-prioritizing in order to be able to work with this. We have requested, and been given, extra resources,” said Per Follin, head of the region's disease control unit. 

While contact tracing is a normal part of disease control work, Follin said what set the current situation apart from his everyday work was “the volume, the tempo, and the quick changes”. 

If you develop symptoms such as a fever or dry cough, especially after travelling to a high-risk area (China, South Korea, Iran or the northern Italian regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Aosta Valley, Liguria, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Tuscany) or coming into contact with someone who has, call the national healthline 1177.

If you have questions about the coronavirus, you can call Sweden's information number 113 13.

Sweden's national emergency number, only for emergencies, is 112. 

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