Sweden announced on Thursday it will soon drop most of its COVID-19 restrictions. Last week, England ended nearly all pandemic restrictions, saying, among other things, that masks were no longer required in public spaces. Denmark lifted all of its COVID-19 measures this week, including the requirement to isolate after testing positive.
Some European countries, like England, have said they are past the peak of COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and as a result, they have opted to drop restrictions like mask mandates and the use of COVID-19 vaccine passes in public venues. Others announced the easing of restrictions even as they continue to report a high volume of COVID-19 cases, but officials in some countries, including Denmark and Norway, have said the strain on the countries’ health care systems is now at a manageable level.
Data show that the countries that have announced eased restrictions have higher vaccination rates than the United States. In Sweden and the United Kingdom, 73 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University. in Norway, 75 percent of the population is vaccinated; and in Denmark 81 percent of the population is vaccinated.
Meanwhile, in the United States, 64 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Hans Kluge, the director for the World Health Organization in Europe, said Thursday that the region is entering a “plausible endgame” to the pandemic. He cited Europe’s high levels of protection due to vaccinations and natural immunity from infections, the end of winter, and the Omicron variant being less severe than the Delta variant.
“This period of higher protection should be seen as a cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace,” Kluge said.
However, the WHO’s director cautioned that the world is not yet out of the woods.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned this week that countries shouldn’t move to stop the measures that prevent the virus from transmitting.
“We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines — and because of Omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity — preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” Tedros said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Sweden became the most recent European country to announce it was easing restrictions, which like in many European counties were more stringent than COVID measures in place in the United States. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Thursday announced the relaxed measures: Beginning on Feb. 9 in Sweden, the number of people who can gather at restaurants, sports venues, and other places will no longer be limited, people will no longer be required to work from home, and travel restrictions on visitors from other Nordic countries will be eased, according to The New York Times.
“It’s time to open up Sweden,” Andersson said. “The pandemic isn’t over, but it is moving into a new phase.”
Andersson noted that data show that COVID-19 infections in Sweden are rising, but hospitals are not as strained as they were in previous waves of the pandemic.
England no longer requires face masks in public places, and people no longer need to use COVID-19 passes to verify their vaccination status to enter large-scale events, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last month.
Johnson said the restrictions were being lifted because government scientists have concluded that the surge in Omicron cases “has now peaked nationally.”
Norway’s prime minister said on Tuesday that it would remove remaining COVID-19 restrictions in the country even as infections are rising, citing lower hospitalization rates.
“Even if many more people are becoming infected, there are fewer who are hospitalized,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said at a press conference, according to Reuters. “We’re well protected by vaccines. This means that we can relax many measures even as infections are rising rapidly.”
Denmark this week lifted all of its COVID-19 restrictions, including its indoor mask mandate, the use of COVID-19 passes to confirm a person’s vaccination status for certain venues, and the requirement to self-isolate upon testing positive.
The country on Tuesday announced it would be ending the measures. On Wednesday, Denmark reported a record high of COVID-19 cases with 55,709 cases reported, according to Johns Hopkins University, which tracks COVID-19 in countries around the world.
A top health official in Denmark told CNN that while infections are soaring, fewer patients are seriously ill with the virus.
“At the same time as infections are skyrocketing, patients admitted to intensive care actually going down,” Søren Brostrøm, the director-general of Denmark’s Health Authority, told CNN. “It’s around 30 people in ICU beds right now with a COVID-19 diagnosis, out of a population of 6 million.”
At the same time as restrictions have been dropped in multiple European countries, the continent continues to report a high volume of new daily COVID cases, according to WHO data. On Feb. 2, more than 1.9 million confirmed COVID cases were reported, according to the organization. On Dec. 1, before the Omicron surge, the region reported more than 450,000 daily confirmed cases, according to the WHO.
Meanwhile in the United States, the number of new daily COVID infections is dropping in nearly every state, though the country is still reporting hundreds of thousands of new cases each day. On Wednesday, the seven-day average of COVID cases stood at 378,015, according to the CDC.
At a White House COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the country is down about 36 percent from the previous week.
Walensky said that even as infections decrease, hospitalizations “remain high, stretching our healthcare capacity and workforce to its limits in some areas of the country.” Deaths are also at high levels, Walenksy said.
She urged people to get vaccinated and boosted, noting new data that show unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to die than vaccinated people.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.