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The Latest: Has Sweden’s coronavirus strategy failed?

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Even Sweden appears to be abandoning the Swedish model. On Monday, the country’s authorities banned gatherings of more than eight people as they grappled with the second coronavirus wave surging through much of Europe. The new restrictions followed other protocols coming into effect this week, including protective measures around nursing homes and bans on alcohol sales at restaurants and bars after 10 p.m.

The shift in tone is noteworthy given Sweden’s notorious light-touch approach to the pandemic. “It is a clear and sharp signal to every person in our country as to what applies in the future,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said during a news conference Monday. “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel!”

Sweden had set itself apart from its Nordic neighbors in its laissez-faire policies, joining only autocratic Belarus as the two European nations that eschewed major coronavirus lockdowns when the continent was hit by the first wave. The country’s nursing homes were ravaged by the virus, but life went on largely as usual in much of the rest of the country: Most schools and business remained open, while Swedish health authorities have even counseled against the widespread wearing of masks.

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Students celebrate their high school graduation in Stockholm in June. Sweden had a relatively low-key approach to coronavirus lockdowns which captured the world’s attention when the pandemic first hit Europe. Jessica Gow/TT via Associated Press

While right-wing politicians in the United States hailed the “Swedish model,” Swedish officials insisted their methods might not be replicable elsewhere. In an interview with Today’s WorldView earlier this year, Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador in Washington, stressed that widespread trust in the country’s public agencies meant that most Swedes would voluntarily heed social distancing guidelines. Sweden’s robust social safety net and enhanced paid sick leave, she argued, would help ensure more Swedes would stay home if they felt symptoms or feared contracting the virus at their workplaces.

“The virus is going to be around for a long time, so we have to have something we can live with,” Olofsdotter said then, adding that the country could change course if its approach were proven to be ineffective.

That moment may now have arrived. On Friday, Sweden recorded almost 6,000 new daily coronavirus cases. The total number of infections is nearing 200,000 in a country of 10 million people. In Stockholm, the capital, 1 in 5 people getting tested are testing positive, and the official number of positive cases could be much higher with more widespread testing. Hospitalizations are rising faster in Sweden than any other European country, and Sweden’s per capita death rate is several times higher than those of its Nordic neighbors Finland, Denmark and Norway.

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State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden in July. SStina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via Associated Press

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been the stoic face of the country’s strategy. In the summer, he told skeptics to wait till fall before placing judgment on Sweden’s handling of the crisis. He predicted that Sweden would have accrued a higher level of immunity than its neighbors and that the impact of a second wave would “probably be quite low.” Though Tegnell claimed “herd immunity” was never a goal for Sweden, he appeared to believe that the country’s relative laxity would help it weather the worst of the pandemic in the long run.

“I hoped he was right. It would have been great. But he wasn’t,” Annika Linde, Tegnell’s predecessor, told the Daily Telegraph. “Now we have a high death rate, and we have not escaped a second wave: immunity makes a little difference maybe, but not much difference.”

“So far Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist and vocal opponent of its strategy, told the Financial Times last week. “Four days ago we had eight times higher cases per capita than Finland and three and a half times more than Norway. They were supposed to have it worse off than us in the autumn because we were going to have immunity.”

Biden promises to prioritize state virus funding

President-elect Joe Biden says he’s hopeful that Republicans in Congress will be more willing to send money to state and local governments after President Donald Trump leaves office. He’s promising to make such funding a priority when he takes office in January.

Biden suggested Wednesday that Republicans have resisted Democrats’ demand for local funding as part of a pandemic-relief package “because of their fear of retribution from the president.”

Biden says, “Hopefully, when he’s gone, they’ll be more willing to do what they know should be done, has to be done, in order to save the communities they live in.”

The comments came as part of a virtual discussion Biden hosted with front-line health care workers from across the country.

States are facing massive financial shortfalls as a result of lost tax revenue related to the pandemic that may threaten local health care systems, law enforcement and education.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans generally say a new stimulus bill is needed, but they disagree on how much money should go to local governments.

More than 3 million people in U.S. estimated to be contagious with the coronavirus

More than 3 million people in the United States have active coronavirus infections and are potentially contagious, according to a new estimate from infectious-disease experts tracking the pandemic. That number is significantly larger than the official case count, which is based solely on those who have tested positive for the virus.

The vast – and rapidly growing – pool of coronavirus-infected people poses a daunting challenge to governors and mayors in hard-hit communities who are trying to arrest the surge in cases. Traditional efforts such as testing, isolation of the sick and contact tracing can be overwhelmed when a virus spreads at an exponential rate, especially when large numbers of asymptomatic people may be walking around without even knowing they are infectious.

To put the 3 million-plus figure in perspective: It is close to 1% of the population. It is about equal to the number of public school teachers in the country, or the number of truck drivers. If the University of Michigan’s football stadium were packed with a random selection of Americans, about a thousand of them would be contagious right now.

Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said his team’s model estimated that 3.6 million people are infected and shedding enough virus to infect others. That’s a 34 percent week-to-week increase that followed a 36% increase in the previous seven-day average, he said.

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A medical worker stands at a COVID-19 state drive-thru testing site at UTEP, in El Paso, Texas in October. The U.S. has recorded about 10.3 million confirmed infections, with new cases soaring to all-time highs of well over 120,000 per day over the past week. Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times via AP, File

The estimate does not include an approximately equal number of latent infections among people who caught the virus in recent days and can’t pass it on yet because it is still incubating.

“It’s bad; it’s really, really bad,” Shaman said. “We’re running into Thanksgiving now and that’s only going to make it worse. We’re going to go through a lot of people being infected between now and the end of the year, unfortunately.”

Separately, modelers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated Tuesday that approximately 3.2 million people have been infected just since Election Day, Nov. 3, a figure significantly larger than the approximately 1.95 million official cases tracked over the same period by The Washington Post through reports from state health departments.

The IHME model forecasts continued daily increases for a month and a half, estimating that 245,000 people would become newly infected on Tuesday alone.

“When do you want to hit the brakes? That’s the question,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at IHME who is among many scientists and doctors urging action by the government and general public to reverse the trend lines. “When you have a fire, you send the firetruck. You don’t wait and say, ‘Okay, let me wait a little bit, maybe that fire isn’t going to spread that much’ . . . We already moved into exponential growth. Just hit the brakes as soon as you can.”

Read the full story here.

MA governor urges people not to gather together at Thanksgiving

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is urging residents to refrain from gathering with extended family and friends during the Thanksgiving holiday, saying casual indoor gatherings are helping fuel the new surge in cases in Massachusetts.

Holiday dinners and festivities should be limited to members of an individual’s immediate household, Baker said, adding that the state has limited private indoor gatherings to 10 people.

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks as officials formally launched the $51 million Elm Street Redevelopment and Preservation Economic Project in Court Square in Springfield, Mass., Thursday, Aug. 27. Don Treeger/Yhe Republican via AP

Baker acknowledged that the choice to avoid large family gatherings is difficult for many but said the state is continuing to see more spread of the virus. He said cases have increased by eight times since Labor Day, while there have been four times as many hospitalizations in the same period.

“This second surge is dangerous for all of us,” he said.

Recent developments regarding potential vaccines is welcome news, but it’s no reason for people to let their guard down, he added.

Any college students hoping to go home for the holiday should also be tested at least 72 hours before leaving campus to help reduce the possibility of spreading the virus to their families, Baker said.

While the number of daily confirmed cases is nearing the numbers in the first wave of the disease in the spring, the number of deaths has been lower, according to Baker.

He said that’s in part because testing was more limited in the spring. He said many people who were likely infected but were showing mild or no symptoms were never tested — meaning the disease was likely much more widespread than the number of confirmed positive cases reflected.

Testing is much more widespread now.

The state is also planning to issue an alert to 4.5 million phones in Massachusetts on Thursday to urge residents to remain vigilant against the virus during the holiday.

Dolly Parton helped fund Moderna’s vaccine, starting with a car crash and an unlikely friendship

As Dolly Parton tells it, her first-ever car accident in October 2013 was minor, but left her bruised and sore enough to seek medical advice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

That’s where she met Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery. Abumrad knew next to nothing about the beloved megastar with big, blond hair, but he soon befriended her because he deeply enjoyed their talks about current events and science.

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Dolly Parton performs at her 50th Opry Member Anniversary at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. in October 2019. Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP

Their bond of nearly seven years received worldwide attention Tuesday after it was revealed that Parton’s $1 million donation to Vanderbilt for coronavirus research, made in honor of Abumrad, partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine, which a preliminary analysis released this week foundis nearly 95 percent effective at preventing the illness.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Abumrad recalled how Parton’s curiosity about Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research led to a gift that helped fund the vaccine that could be one of two available in the United States on a limited basis by the end of the year.

Among the agencies and universities listed as funding sources for the Moderna vaccine was “the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund,” which left some on social media joking about singing the refrain of her hit “Jolene” replaced with the word “vaccine.”The doctor said he was elated over his friend’s contribution to the early stages of a vaccine that eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

“Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing,” Abumrad, 76, said on Tuesday night. “Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”

Read the full story here.

Pfizer to seek regulatory review ‘within days’ for vaccine that it says is safe and 95% effective

The coronavirus vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech is 95 percent effective at preventing disease, according to an analysis after the trial reached its endpoint. The vaccine trial also reached a safety milestone, with two months of follow-up on half of the participants, and Pfizer will submit an application for emergency authorization “within days,” according to a news release.

The experimental vaccine had already shown promise at an early analysis announced last week, but the trial sped to completion faster than anticipated due to the spike in coronavirus cases.

In the trial, half the nearly 44,000 participants received the experimental vaccine and half received a placebo. As those people went about their normal lives, they were exposed to the virus in the community, and physicians tracked all cases with symptoms to see if the vaccine had a protective effect.

The data have not yet been published or peer reviewed, but will be closely scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration and an independent advisory committee that makes recommendations to the agency.

Among 170 cases of COVID-19 in the trial, 162 were in the placebo group and eight were in the vaccine group. There were 10 cases of severe disease in the trial, nine of which were in the placebo group and one in the vaccine group.

Among people older than 65, a group at high risk of severe illness, the vaccine was 94 percent effective.

“We continue to move at the speed of science to compile all the data collected thus far and share with regulators around the world,” Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said in a statement.

What you need to know about the Moderna and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines

The news comes days after Moderna, a biotechnology company, announced its vaccine was nearly 95 percent effective at an early analysis.

U.S. government officials anticipate having 40 million doses of both vaccines by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Read the full story here.

WHO logs 4 million new virus cases last week

LONDON — The World Health Organization says nearly 4 million new coronavirus cases were reported globally last week, with Europe accounting for nearly half of all cases.

In its latest epidemiological report on the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N. health agency said for the first time in more than three months, cases in Europe have dropped about 10%, suggesting that recent lockdown measures across the continent are having an effect.

Still, WHO said that the number of deaths in Europe “increased substantially,” with more than 29,000 deaths last week. Significant spikes in cases and deaths were also seen in the Americas; Southeast Asia was the only region that saw a drop in cases and deaths.

In European countries, WHO said the sharpest rise in coronavirus cases was in Austria, which saw a 30% increase compared to the previous week. WHO also noted the U.K. was the first country in the region to record more than 50,000 deaths. Globally, the countries with the biggest number of cases were: the U.S., India, Italy, France, and Brazil.

Los Angeles imposes new restrictions

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County has imposed new restrictions on businesses and is readying plans for a mandatory curfew for all but essential workers if coronavirus cases keep spiking.

The county of 10 million people has seen daily confirmed cases more than double in the last two weeks to nearly 2,900.

On Tuesday, officials ordered non-essential retail businesses to limit indoor capacity to 25% and restaurants to 50% capacity outdoors. All such businesses must close by 10 p.m. The changes take effect Friday.

If daily cases rise to 4,500 and hospitalizations top 2,000, the county will impose a three-week lockdown that will restrict people to their homes for all but essential trips. A nighttime curfew would run from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Chicago public schools to delay in-person learning until 2021

CHICAGO — Public schools in Chicago will resume in-person learning beginning in January, with officials saying remote learning instituted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic has not well-served many students.

Officials said Tuesday that pre-kindergarten and students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster classrooms will begin in-person learning on Jan. 11. Kindergarten through 8th grade students will return to classrooms on Feb. 1. A return date for high school students is still under consideration.

The school district will allow parents to decide whether they want their children to return to school. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that many students did well with remote learning but the youngest children, Black and Hispanic students, and highest-need learners haven’t been served.

New Orleans cancels Mardi Gras parades

NEW ORLEANS — The raucous Mardi Gras parades where riders on elaborate floats toss trinkets to adoring throngs have been canceled in New Orleans because the close-packed crowds could spread the coronavirus.

At least for the 2021 season, the pandemic has put an end to the New Orleans Mardi Gras as it has long been celebrated. City spokesman Beau Tidwell said Tuesday that no parades will roll during the weeks leading up to and including Fat Tuesday because they can’t meet restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The cancellation is based largely on a 250-person cap on outdoor crowds. Tidwell says: “You can’t have traditional parades with that small a group.”


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