Sweden Puts Few Restrictions On Public Life: Could It Work Here? Dr Osterholm Weighs In


Sweden has had a very different approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic called herd immunity, which basically means there are few restrictions on public life and anyone who's sick is trusted to self-quarantine. Eventually, as the plan goes, enough people will have been infected and recovered that the majority of the public -- or the herd -- will be immune to infection.

National coronavirus expert and University of Minnesota Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Dr. Michael Osterholm, says that what Sweden is doing is very different from the rest of the world. 

But could it work here?

"First of all, if you want to understand what is happening in one country, I always tell people just wait a week or two weeks because what appears to be the answer today can suddenly give way to a really changing situation tomorrow. Sweden is a good example," Osterholm says.

"About a month ago, a little over a month ago, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark were all similar in their case numbers. However, Sweden was the one country that had quite relaxed population containment. They had some surely they did and distancing activities, priorities and people all said see you really don't need to do this distancing issue. This is an exaggerated look that there's no difference. Well, been a month ago, the cases in Sweden took off substantially. Now, there has been a big increase through about a week ago in their cases that now distinguishes themselves quite clearly from the other Icelandic countries."

Some of Sweden's steps to combat the pandemic and reach herd immunity have been to keep children in school, keep gatherings to less than 50 people in bars and other places, malls, discourage non-essential travel and for the highly susceptible to stay inside. The Swedish ambassador to the United States told NPR that "About 30% of people in Stockholm have reached a level of immunity. We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month."

Related: National COVID-19 expert Dr. Osterholm receiving death threats

Still, Dr. Osterholm isn't sure that herd immunity is the right answer. 

"I think that it's unfair to say that somehow they have the right answer. But at the same time, I think we're all trying to figure out how to live with this virus. We surely are being forced to die with this virus. That's a horrible situation because every one of these is not a number but a real person who has loved and cared for by people. But at the same time, we've got to figure out how to live with it. It's not just living, but it's also our livelihood. So what Sweden has tried to do is really try to do is this intermediate position of not closing down everything, but at the same time doing some distancing. And I think we're all looking to find what are the best answers."

"We're in this for the long haul. This is not going to be over within a month or two. At best, we're probably at 5% of the Minnesota population that has been infected with this virus. This virus will not stop trying to infect people until we get it to at least the 60% or 70% level. And even then it will try but fail because of herd immunity. So, it's still a lot of people that we are going to have to deal with in terms of infections yet. So we have to figure out how to do it. How do we minimize infecting knows were at the highest risk of serious illness of dying and at the same time we can't live in a completely shutdown world. And that's the discussions many of us are having right now. This is not a simple issue. I think that Sweden is one model we need to look at, but it's not the only model, but we surely need to have these discussions."