STOCKHOLM (AP) – Sweden has halted extensive testing for COVID-19, even among people showing symptoms of an infection, putting an end to the mobile town square tent sites, drive-in swab centers and home-delivered tests that became ubiquitous during pandemic and provided significant data to track the spread.
The move puts the Scandinavian nation on edge with most of Europe, but some experts say it may become the norm, as costly tests provide fewer benefits with the easily transferable but milder omicron variant, and as governments begin to consider treating COVID -19, as they do other endemic diseases.
“We have reached a point where the cost and relevance of the test is no longer justifiable.” Swedish public health director Karin Tegmark Wisell told the national broadcaster SVT this week.
“If we were to have comprehensive testing tailored to everyone who has COVID-19, that would mean half a billion dollars a week (about $ 55 million) and 2 billion a month ($ 220 million),” Tegmark Wisell added.
As of Wednesday, only caregivers and the most vulnerable will be entitled to free PCR testing if they are symptomatic, while the rest of the population will simply be asked to stay home if they show symptoms that may be COVID-19.
Antigen tests are readily available for purchase in supermarkets and pharmacies, but these results are not reported to health authorities. Private health care providers can also perform tests and offer certificates for international travel, but the cost will not be reimbursed by the state or health insurance.
High vaccination rates in Sweden are creating optimism among health officials, and a study at the end of 2020, published on Tuesday, shows antibodies present in 85% of samples.
Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical associate professor at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK, said that with a significant percentage of people being vaccinated, “an informed, educated and knowledgeable population” can be trusted to isolate if they show symptoms without need. for “wholesale testing that will not provide value for money.”
“Sweden is leading the way and other nations will inevitably follow suit,” Pankhania said. “We do not need comprehensive tests for the sake of the test, but we still need to look in sensitive environments such as hospitals, nursing homes and other sensitive places where there are very vulnerable people.”
In 2021, the Stockholm region alone spent the equivalent of more than $ 320 million on PCR tests, money that the government says could be used better elsewhere.
In most of the pandemic, Sweden stood out among the European nations for its relatively tangible response. It never went into lockdown or closed companies, and instead relied on individual responsibility to control infections. While coronavirus deaths were high compared to other Nordic countries, they were lower than many other places in Europe that implemented lockdowns.
Also on Wednesday, from midnight onwards, the country scrapped its limits on how many people can gather at events or at restaurants, vaccine certificates can no longer be required, and reduced opening hours have been canceled for bars and eateries.
When Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced the reopening last week, she said “the pandemic is not over, but has entered a whole new phase,” and although the infection rate has risen, it does not burden hospitals too much.
This is in line with what has happened in countries across Europe recently, as authorities are easing coronavirus restrictions that have dominated the continent for the past two years.
Nevertheless, testing is still widespread on the continent, even for people who do not show symptoms. For example, school children and teachers in Greece have to test twice a week, and many countries still require a COVID-19 passport or a negative test to enter restaurants, cinemas and other indoor venues.
In the UK, instead of dropping all test requirements, the authorities rely on testing, in addition to vaccination, to help people return to normal life. Even as it eased most of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions in late January, the government said testing remained an “important tool” to leave the pandemic, saying infected people could end their isolation after just five days with two negative results on rapid tests over two consecutive days.
The government has also made quick tests freely available, including via home delivery, and urged people to test themselves before potentially risky gatherings in hopes that knowledge of their status will slow down the COVID-19 transfer.
Some providers of private COVID-19 laboratory tests have seen a steep drop recently in the number of people seeking tests, since UK authorities dropped the requirement for vaccinated travelers to give a negative test upon entry into the country, from this Friday.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signaled his intention to eliminate the need to isolate after a positive COVID-19 test in late February. People will still be advised to isolate themselves.
“Assuming the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions – including the legal requirement to isolate yourself if you test positive – a full month before,” he said. .
“We are seeing fewer people with COVID, and so fewer people are being tested,” said Quinton Fivelman, head of science at London Medical Laboratory, “which is obviously a good sign, even if it means less demand in that market.”
As vaccination rates rise across Europe and millions recover from winter omicron infections, a similar lack of demand for testing could lead to them being phased out instead of government policy.
Denmark said that the number of PCR tests will fall from 500,000 per. day to 200,000 to “match the current stage of epidemic development”, and the Scandinavian country’s free government – funded capacity for rapid tests is due to close on March 6, while the centers offering PCR tests would continue as long as necessary.
“Vaccines and easy access to testing have been our Danish superweapons throughout the epidemic,” said Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke last month, adding that “this has been positively reflected in the number of (hospital) admissions and now allows us to scale down to our large test capacity. “
Associated Press writers Maria Cheng in Toronto, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.
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