Sweden Claims Its High Coronavirus Death Toll Is Down to Mild Flu Seasons in Recent Years

The state epidemiologist of Norway has criticized his Swedish counterpart, after he claimed that Sweden had a higher number of coronavirus deaths due to milder flu seasons.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, according to a translation by The Local, that a new report showed "a strong connection between a low excess mortality rate from the flu and high excess mortality from COVID-19, and vice versa."

He said: "What people are now seeing is that countries which have a rather low death rate from flu over the past two to three years have a very high excess mortality from COVID-19, while those that have had a high flu death rate, like Norway, over the past two winters, have a low COVID death rate."

Of the more than 30 million coronavirus cases diagnosed during the pandemic and the 946,140 recorded deaths, Sweden accounts for 87,885 and 5,864, respectively, according to Johns Hopkins University. Sweden has a population of 10.3 million.

Norway, which has a population of 5.4 million, has had 12,644 cases and 266 deaths.

Norway's state epidemiologist, Frode Forland, questioned the idea that his country had experienced more severe flu seasons recently. Speaking to The Local.No, Forland described the recent flu seasons in Norway and Sweden as "rather mild."

He said Norway had a relatively low number of coronavirus deaths because it timed its lockdown well, and was able to prevent the virus from spreading early on in the pandemic.

Forland said Norway and Sweden had both had a relative lack of success at preventing the virus from spreading in elderly care homes, making up about 60 percent of deaths in each country.

According to the European Centre For Disease Prevention and Control annual epidemiological report, Sweden low levels of intensity in the 2019/2020 season, as did Norway. The 2018 to 2019 flu season in Sweden had periods of low and medium levels of intensity, as did Norway. In 2017/2018, Sweden had low, medium, and high levels of intensity, whereas Norway had low and medium.

Forland told Dagens Nyheter that deaths from the flu in Norway and Sweden were not that different. "When it comes to the death toll from influenza in recent years, we're working on getting a detailed picture, but it doesn't look like there has been a particularly high death toll connected to influenza in recent years in Norway," he said.

The Public Health Agency of Sweden declined to comment.

Sweden has been singled out amid the pandemic for not legally imposing lockdowns as many other countries, including its European neighbors, did. It instead gave citizens guidance on how to act during the pandemic. Shops, restaurants, and gyms remained open, but schools and universities were closed to over-16s. Public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, and over-70s and those with COVID-19 symptoms were told to self-isolate. It has also not mandated face mask use.

In Norway, the government implemented a lockdown on March 12, which was partially eased on May 7.

This article has been updated with comment from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, and additional information.

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A woman wears a face mask as she waits at a bus stop, next to a sign asking people to keep their distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 26, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. STINA STJERNKVIST/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images