Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren announced the decision not to extend a nationwide ban on visits to care homes for elderly people when it expires on October 1st, at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
The ban was introduced on April 1st – and some local authorities introduced a ban even before that date – to help curb the spread of the coronavirus among vulnerable risk groups. It has been extended several times.
As The Local has previously reported, the coronavirus swept through many of Sweden's care homes at the early stages of the pandemic. A large number of the country's almost 6,000 fatalities took place in elderly care homes in spring. Since then, Covid-19 deaths in care homes have dropped significantly, partly thanks to the ban.
But concerns have also been raised that the ban is at this point causing more health problems than it resolves. Swedish health authorities are worried that it is leading to increased isolation and loneliness among people, many of whom are very old and vulnerable, who have not been able to receive visits from friends and family as normal.
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The government based its decision on advice from Sweden's National Board of Health and Welfare and the Public Health Agency. They said that the rate of infection had decreased, and that care homes were now better equipped to handle testing and hygiene procedures than they were during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
Out of 5,731 deaths where Covid-19 was the main cause of death, a total of 2,669 people lived in care homes for the elderly, according to the National Board of Health and Welfare's data for the period up until September 7th*.
During the peak of the outbreak in spring, several hundreds of deaths were registered in care homes every week. Since the end of May, the number has been below 100 a week and in recent weeks no more than a handful of people have died in care homes (very low numbers are confidential in the statistics, for privacy reasons).
“But the danger is not over. The visitor bears great reponsibility,” said Olivia Wigzell, director-general of the National Board of Health and Welfare, adding that the board had prepared binding regulations for visits, including that all care homes have to carry out a risk analysis so that they can adapt their work and safely allow visitors.
Public Health Agency director-general Johan Carlson said it was important that care homes start preparing as soon as possible in order to avoid people rushing to visit relatives at the same time as soon as the ban is lifted.
“We hope that we will be able to move from a strict visitors ban to regulated (visits),” he said.
Some local regulations and bans may still be needed in the future, in the case of cluster outbreaks, Carlson added. Health authorities are currently working on outlining specific rules and recommendations for care homes.
* The National Board of Health and Welfare records coronavirus deaths based on a doctor's assessment of the primary cause of death, regardless of whether the person tested positive. The Public Health Agency's data, which are the ones that are usually cited in Sweden's official updates, shows how many people died within 30 days of testing positive for coronavirus, regardless of whether or not it was the cause of death (according to these figures, 5,845 had died as of September 7th).