Sweden’s Public Health Agency expects Delta variant of Covid-19 to become dominant before autumn

The Public Health Agency has called for caution amid the rise of the more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, which it predicts will be the dominant variant in Sweden within a few weeks. At the same time, overall cases are currently declining.

Sweden's Public Health Agency expects Delta variant of Covid-19 to become dominant before autumn
The Local asked the Public Health Agency if Sweden's current Covid-19 restrictions, which have just been eased, will be sufficient to protect against the variant. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Sweden’s 14-day incidence rate is now down to 45 new cases per 100,000 people, the lowest level in months. That’s a similar level to neighbour Denmark as well as France and Belgium, according to ECDC data.

“We have a continued decline in the number of cases, but it is still important to be have vigilance, especially for local outbreaks,” said Sara Byfors of the Public Health Agency.

Currently, incidence rates continue to vary within Sweden, with Värmland reporting just under 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks following outbreaks of the Delta variant, while in Norrbotten the figure was 215.

Byfors said that in regions with higher incidence rates, “individuals perhaps need to be a bit more careful about how they behave, maybe be a bit stricter with how many people you meet”.

The Local asked Byfors if new tools or processes were being provided to support regions in handling outbreaks, and she responded that they were already well prepared for this.

“I think they have developed, over time, systems for contact tracing and how they handle outbreaks or an indication that they have an increase of cases in a certain environment. So I think they have these tools already and they have certainly improved over time. We also have a very good capacity for testing now, so that is not the issue that it was early in the pandemic,” she explained.

One of the concerns she mentioned was the increasing spread of the Delta variant of the virus, known to be more highly contagious. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday that the number of new cases of Covid-19 is increasing again after more than two months of reduced transmission, with the Delta variant a key reason for the break in the positive trend.

But Byfors reiterated statements previously made by her Public Health Agency colleagues that the agency does not expect the spread of Delta in itself to increase the overall infection rate in Sweden.

She said that if the variant becomes dominant as expected, this may lead to changes in restrictions, “for example we may need to change guidance on who needs to isolate when a close contact has symptoms”, and that other restrictions may need to be made stricter if the infection rate rises.

Answering a question from the TT newswire, she said: “We cannot promise that there won’t be a spread of infection, but good testing and contact tracing mean that it is still OK to open up [society]. But we want to say clearly: continue following the recommendations that exist. Our basic assessment is that the same preventative measures can be used against the Delta variant as other variants.” 

The Local asked Byfors if the restrictions in Sweden, which were relaxed on July 1st, are likely to be sufficient in keeping the overall spread of the virus low given the spread of the Delta variant. 

She said: “We think that we are keeping most of the basic recommendations: keep your distance to people you don’t know, avoid areas where you think there will be crowding. It’s very important that we continue like we have done up to now and follow these recommendations. It’s also important that individuals take the responsibility to isolate when you have symptoms, and to be really careful when you meet other people. Meet outside, don’t socialise in too big groups and so on.”

The Local asked if media coverage and public reaction to the relaxations as ‘returning to normal’ was then a misinterpretation, to which Byfors agreed.

“I would say it’s a misinterpretation, but it’s come after a long time of socialisation for some. I think that some have isolated too much and some too little, you have the whole spectrum,” she answered. “[How people interpret the rule changes] is also what you want to hear and not what you really understand. So we can just repeat over and over again that the pandemic is not over. It’s also important for people to socialise and to meet others, certainly those that have not met a lot of people at all and are fully vaccinated now, they need to feel that they can do that without risking their own health.”

You can watch the full press conference online at the agency’s YouTube channel. The Local’s questions, asked and answered in English, come around 1hr10. It was the final regular Covid-19 press conference from the Swedish authorities before the summer break (they have said they will hold further briefings at short notice if needed).

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Covid deaths in Sweden ‘set to rise in coming weeks’

The Public Health Agency of Sweden has warned that the number of weekly Covid deaths is set to rise, after the number of people testing positive for the virus rose for the sixth week running.

Covid deaths in Sweden 'set to rise in coming weeks'

According to the agency, an average of 27 people have died with or from the virus a week over the past three weeks. 

“According to our analyses, the number who died in week 27 (July 4th-July 11th), is more than died in week 26 and we expect this to continue to grow,” the agency wrote in a report issued on Thursday. 

In the week ending July 17th (week 28), 4,700 new cases of Covid-19 were registered, a 22 percent rise on the previous week. 

“We are seeing rising infection levels of Covid-19 which means that there will be more people admitted to hospital, and even more who die with Covid-19,”  said Anneli Carlander, a unit chief at the agency. “The levels we are seeing now are higher than they were last summer, but we haven’t reached the same level we saw last winter when omicron was spreading for the first time.” 

While 27 deaths a week with for from Covid-19 is a rise on the low levels seen this spring, it is well below the peak death rate Sweden saw in April 2020, when more than 100 people were dying a day. 

The number of Covid deaths recorded each week this summer. Source. Public Health Agency of Sweden
A graph of Covid deaths per day since the start of the pandemic shows that the current death rate, while alarming, remains low. Photo: Public Health Agency of Sweden

Carlander said that cases were rising among those in sheltered accommodation for the elderly, and also elderly people given support in their own homes, groups which are recommended to get tested for the virus if they display symptoms. The infection rate among those given support in their homes has risen 40 percent on last week. 

This week there were also 12 new patients admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19 in Sweden’s hospitals.  

The increase has come due to the new BA.5 variant of omicron, which is better able to infect people who have been vaccinated or already fallen ill with Covid-19. Vaccination or a past infection does, however, give protection against serious illness and death.