What do we know about coronavirus deaths among Sweden’s healthcare workers?

What do we know about coronavirus deaths among Sweden's healthcare workers?
A hospital on the island of Gotland, with a sign warning people not to enter if exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Thousands of those who have been infected with coronavirus in Sweden are doctors, nurses and others working in the healthcare sector – and some of these frontline workers have died of the virus.

By the middle of May, more than 10,300 people working in the medical and care sector had been diagnosed with coronavirus in Sweden, according to figures provided to the TT newswire by the Swedish Public Health Agency.

That's around a third of all the country's confirmed cases in the first three months of the outbreak. However, for most of this time people were only tested for the virus if they were in need of hospitalisation, worked in the medical or care sector, or were care home residents. That means many of the mild cases affecting people outside those key sectors were not diagnosed, so healthcare workers are over-represented in the statistics.

There is no official figure on the number of deaths within the healthcare sector, as Swedish authorities have not gathered fatality data based on profession and after mid-May, a change in testing procedures means it's not possible to see the proportion of tests that were health or care staff.. The vast majority of people who fall ill with the coronavirus only suffer mild symptoms.

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Despite a lack of official data, testimonies from within the healthcare sector tell the stories of the frontline workers who have died of the virus.

The Swedish Association of Health Professionals also reported the death of one of its members in late April, who had been working on a Stockholm ward with Covid-19 patients.

“She had tested positive beforehand, and was off work sick with her symptoms,” the associations's spokesperson Sineva Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro said there were accounts of medical staff who got severely ill after working on intensive care wards.

“When you're in a space where patients are really ill, there's a risk that you yourself will get hit really badly if you get infected,” she said.

There are still many unknown factors around how the coronavirus affects people. Age is the most significant factor, and there are several other known risk factors such as obesity and some heart and lung conditions, but there are also cases worldwide of younger, healthy people getting severely ill and in some cases dying with no clear reason why they should be so badly affected.


Inside the intensive care unit at Södertälje Hospital during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Staffan Löwstedt/SvD/TT

“I know of two doctors in Stockholm who have died, where there is significant likelihood that they got sick at work,” said Johan Styrud, chief physician at Stockholm's Danderyd Hospital and spokesperson for the Stockholm Doctors Association.

Styrud noted that a lack of preparedness for a pandemic led to a severe lack of protective equipment in the early weeks, in hospitals but especially in local doctors' offices or for home carers.

“For those who were working on the front line in primary care and with advanced home care, there was awfully little protection. Staff were enormously vulnerable,” he said.

“In the first weeks, the directives on what we should use for protection were changed several times. Not based on science, but based on what there was available.”

In the very early stages of the pandemic, healthcare staff weren't tested, which meant that large numbers were off sick due to symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

“It was hard to know which staff should go home. You couldn't send home all staff who had a bit of a cold,” Styrud said.

The Swedish Public Health Agency recommended from March 13th that all staff and patients in hospital should be tested for coronavirus, and by mid-May a total of 10,315 of Sweden's 31,069 positive coronavirus tests were for health and care staff.


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