Sweden: A roadmap for Virginia’s next steps in COVID-19?

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Sweden, which is taking a dramatically different approach from much of the rest of the West in its response to COVID-19, could provide a roadmap for Virginia’s next steps in terms of COVID-19 response.

The Scandinavian nation has bucked the global push to institute mandatory lockdowns, instead going with a voluntary approach – asking people to avoid non-necessary travel, asking people who can work from home to do so, asking those who are over 70 or are feeling ill to stay home.

Note: asking.

The high schools are closed, but the primary and junior highs are open.

There is a ban on public gatherings, but the upper number is 50 people, not 10, as it is currently in Virginia.

Shops and restaurants, and hair salons, are open.

The policy has met with plenty of internal criticism, as the nation has surpassed the 1,200 mark in deaths from COVID-19, but the head of Sweden’s health agency feels the country is at the peak of its outbreak, and points to its death rate being in line with other Western nations that have instituted more strenuous measures, and to its hospitals not being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, as has been the case in several hotspots.

On those points, first, the death rate: Sweden is currently at 101 deaths per 1 million residents, a higher rate than that in the U.S. (79 per million), but much lower than France (234 per million), the UK (182 per million), Italy (348 per million) and Spain (390 per million), all of which are under lockdowns.

Then, to the second point, hospital capacity: Sweden has 2.2 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, well off from the capacity in France (6.0 per 1,000), Italy (3.2 per 1,000), Spain (3.0 per 1,000), the U.S. (2.8 per 1,000), and the UK (2.5 per 1,000).

I bring that second point up to emphasize that it’s not the case that Sweden can just flood its hospitals with COVID-19 patients as part of a herd immunity strategy that would, in theory, allow the virus to run its course through the population in a single wave.

Neither can Virginia, which has 2.1 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, disturbingly below the U.S. national average, but in line with Sweden.

Virginia is also in line with Sweden in terms of population – with 8.63 million residents in the Commonwealth, to Sweden’s population of 10.23 million.

If anything, Sweden has a more densely-packed population, with one city, Stockholm, with over 1 million residents, a second city, Gothenburg, with more than 570,000 residents, and eight other cities with between 100,000 and 300,000 residents, putting roughly a third of the country’s inhabitants in those 10 cities.

Virginia’s biggest city is Virginia Beach, at 450,000 residents, with seven other cities between 135,000 and 245,000, putting a fifth of the Commonwealth’s residents in those eight cities.

Both also have plenty of wide-open spaces – 15 percent of Sweden is in the Arctic Circle; Virginia south and west of Washington, D.C., and Richmond is lots of farms, mountains and back roads.

Policymakers in the U.S. have stressed that it’s important not to take the foot off the brakes on COVID-19 too soon out of fear of the unknown as to what would happen.

Sweden, which is already where we probably need to be in terms of how much pressure we should be applying to the brakes on COVID, is worth a deeper-dive look to build some level of comfort of what the first step toward normal will look like.

Story by Chris Graham


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