STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden carried out a record number of new coronavirus tests last week with only 1.2% coming back positive, the health agency said on Tuesday, the lowest rate since the pandemic began at a time when countries across Europe are seeing surges in infections.
Sweden avoided a lockdown and instead emphasized personal responsibility, social distancing and good hygiene in a bid to slow rather than eradicate a disease deemed here to stay.
The strategy drew fierce criticism home and abroad as deaths shot up during the spring but has also been lauded by WHO officials as a sustainable model.
“The purpose of our approach is for people themselves to understand the need to follow the recommendations and guidelines that exist,” Swedish Health Agency Director-General Johan Carlson told a news conference.
Whereas many countries have changing rules and lockdown restrictions, Carlson said the Swedish guidelines were designed to be easy to understand and retain for an extended period.
“There are no other tricks before there are available medical measures, primarily vaccines. The Swedish population has taken this to heart,” he said.
More than 5,800 people with the disease have died, many times higher per capita than in neighbouring Nordic countries but lower than Italy, Spain and the UK.
Deaths, hospitalisations and new cases have now dropped to low levels whilst countries such as Spain and France contend with surges in infections after they lifted lockdowns.
Sweden carried out over 120,000 tests last week with just over 1,300 coming back positive, far below the 19% positive tests hit during some weeks in the spring, and now has the lowest rate of spread in Scandinavia.
“Our strategy has been consistent and sustainable. We probably have a lower risk of spread here compared to other countries,” said Jonas Ludvigsson, professor of epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet, adding that Sweden likely had a higher level of immunity in the population than most countries.
“I think we benefit a lot from that now,” he said.
The approach has its critics. An editorial in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper said the growing numbers lauding the Swedish strategy had forgotten the many dead.
“It seems some numbers need to be repeated. Sweden has 5,837 dead in COVID-19. A proportion five times higher than Denmark.”