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Sweden avoided a national coronavirus lockdown, and it may have worked, says chief epidemiologist

'...the economy could be better placed to rebound'

Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden answers journalists' questions after an update on the COVID-19 coronavirus situation on Monday in Solna, Sweden. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Sweden didn't implement the strict social distancing and stay-at-home orders seen in the United States and other countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strategy may have paid off, said the country's chief epidemiologist.

What's the story? Anders Tegnell, the top epidemiologist at Sweden's Public Health Agency, said the decision to implement moderate social distancing recommendations, rather than ordering people to stay in their homes, has allowed the population to build an immunity that is slowing the spread of the virus.

"According to our modelers, we are starting to see so many immune people in the population in Stockholm that it is starting to have an effect on the spread of the infection," said Tegnell, who said herd immunity was inevitable, according to the New York Daily News. "Our models point to some time in May."

Swedish leaders recommended that residents observe social distancing guidelines such as working from home if possible and staying isolated if they are in an at-risk category. Gatherings as large as 500 people were allowed, in contrast with the common U.S. ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Gyms, schools, bars, and restaurants remained open, with the responsibility placed on citizens to conduct themselves appropriately and safely.

"While Sweden's unwillingness to lock down the country could ultimately prove to be ill-judged, for now, if the infection curve flattens out soon, the economy could be better placed to rebound," said HSBC Global Research economist James Pomeroy.

What do the numbers show? Just more than 1,540 people have died of COVID-19 in Sweden, out of 14,385 confirmed cases. Even that death toll, Tegnell said, is not an indicator of a policy failure.

"It is a failure to protect our elderly who live in care homes," Tegnell said.

Data coming out of Europe shows that 40% to 50% of COVID-19 deaths in some countries have been nursing home residents. Even in the United States, there have been significant and deadly outbreaks in senior care facilities, such as in Seattle where the first known U.S. cases were found.

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