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Thank you, front line medics!

Sweden’s hospitals stretched to the limit

Sweden’s hospitals stretched to the limit

Finland and Norway have offered medical assistance, the government opts for emergency powers

Sweden, known for its one-of-a kind, lenient approach to the coronavirus pandemic, is now paying a heavy price for shunning a lockdown and face mask mandate. On Monday the country set an all-time record in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Figures disclosed by Swedish Television showed that 2 389 patients, including those in intensive care units (ICU), were receiving hospital treatment for the insidious disease on that date. The previous high, recorded on 20 April, at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, was 65 patients less.

Shortage of ICU staff

These numbers speak little in themselves unless they are measured against a country’s healthcare capacity. And although Sweden has proved capable of rolling out more ICU beds so as not to be caught unawares in case of bad outbreaks, now it is facing a problem other countries have long grappled with - insufficient specialist staff to attend to those beds.

An investigation by Swedish Radio News reveals that six out of Sweden's seven university hospitals are understaffed, the main issue being a shortage of nurses. And the management has little room for manoeuvre but ask the front line medics to work double shifts.  

Stockholm region hit hardest

The situation is especially alarming in and around Stockholm, where intensive care units are almost full to capacity - for the first time during the pandemic. Björn Eriksson, director of Region Stockholm Healthcare, told The BMJ that local healthcare staff are so hard pressed that he had formally asked the National Board of Health and Welfare for more specialised doctors and nurses. According to Eriksson, it may be possible to “borrow” trained staff from private care providers, and hospitals in less-affected regions may also come to the rescue.

Meanwhile, Finland and Norway, whose infection rates are drastically lower, have offered medical assistance to Sweden, reports The Financial Times. The Swedish government has not officially asked for outside help as yet.

In Stockholm and the surrounding region cases have soared to 756 per 100 000 inhabitants on a 14 days basis, while by comparison, cases per 100 000 are 116 in Finland, and 97 in Norway. Even Denmark trails behind with 434 cases. All of Sweden’s neighbours have endured strict lockdowns.

Change of approach

The Swedish government changed its soft approach to the pandemic when faced with new cases rising relentlessly in November in sync with the rest of Europe. Gatherings of more than eight people have been banned (a restriction that would extend to the Christmas holidays) and secondary schools have been told to switch to remote learning for the rest of the term.

The government has even asked parliament to approve an emergency legislation granting it more powers to enforce measures such as closing shopping malls and gyms. Every Swedish citizen has received an SMS with information about the updated health recommendations and municipalities have issued their own warnings.

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