Managing Coronavirus Disease 2019 Spread With Voluntary Public Health Measures: Sweden as a Case Study for Pandemic Control

Clin Infect Dis. 2020 Dec 15;71(12):3174-3181. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa864.


Background: The coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has spread globally, causing extensive illness and mortality. In advance of effective antiviral therapies, countries have applied different public health strategies to control spread and manage healthcare need. Sweden has taken a unique approach of not implementing strict closures, instead urging personal responsibility. We analyze the results of this and other potential strategies for pandemic control in Sweden.

Methods: We implemented individual-based modeling of COVID-19 spread in Sweden using population, employment, and household data. Epidemiological parameters for COVID-19 were validated on a limited date range; where substantial uncertainties remained, multiple parameters were tested. The effects of different public health strategies were tested over a 160-day period, analyzed for their effects on intensive care unit (ICU) demand and death rate, and compared with Swedish data for April 2020.

Results: Swedish mortality rates are intermediate between rates for European countries that quickly imposed stringent public health controls and those for countries that acted later. Models most closely reproducing reported mortality data suggest that large portions of the population voluntarily self-isolate. Swedish ICU use rates remained lower than predicted, but a large fraction of deaths occurred in non-ICU patients. This suggests that patient prognosis was considered in ICU admission, reducing healthcare load at a cost of decreased survival in patients not admitted.

Conclusions: The Swedish COVID-19 strategy has thus far yielded a striking result: mild mandates overlaid with voluntary measures can achieve results highly similar to late-onset stringent mandates. However, this policy causes more healthcare demand and more deaths than early stringent control and depends on continued public will.

Keywords: COVID-19; healthcare capacity; individual behavior; individual-based modeling; public health mandates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • COVID-19*
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Public Health
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Sweden
  • Young Adult