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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher August 6, 2021

Sweden’s low COVID-19 death tally in July ignores other markers of pandemic’s toll

If Your Time is short

  • Sweden, which went light on restrictions to manage the pandemic, recorded a small number of COVID-19 deaths in July 2021.

  • But Sweden’s death rate is more than twice as high as it was 10 months earlier and is higher than its neighbors’. Infections are on the rise.

From the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden made itself a compelling case study, forgoing lockdowns and mandates,  keeping its society largely open — and prompting claims that it was faring better with COVID-19 than the United States.

Early on, we found such statements were overstated. Now, nearly a year and a half later, as the virus’ delta variant spikes cases, the claims have reemerged.

One widely shared on Facebook came from Steve Deace, the host of a show on the conservative Blaze TV streaming network. He has promoted Sweden’s approach as better than the United States’.

Alluding to the 27-nation European Union, which includes Sweden, Deace wrote: 

"In the month of July, Sweden recorded a grand total of 9 deaths with Covid in a nation of over 10 million. Lowest mask compliance in EU, least locked down country in EU from beginning, and just 41% fully vaccinated. Also codes Covid deaths similar to how we do."

Deace’s post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post has a point in terms of its characterization of Sweden’s response to the pandemic, its vaccination rate and a relatively small number of COVID-19 deaths in July.

But cherry picking one statistic — the raw number of deaths in a single month — leaves a misleading impression of conditions and trends in Sweden.

Asked whether he was implying that there is a connection between the July deaths and Sweden’s low vaccination rates, relaxed lockdown rules and low mask compliance, Deace told us: "I actually trust readers to draw their own conclusions from the data."

How Sweden is different

In contrast to some of its neighbors and the U.S., Sweden’s society has remained largely open during the pandemic, as the government responded mostly with guidelines, not stay-at-home orders and quarantines. Masks generally were not recommended.

In April 2020, in the weeks after the outbreak was declared a pandemic, we looked at two claims that touted Sweden’s more hands-off approach as superior to lockdown policies imposed in Europe and the U.S. We found that infection rate cited in one of these claims was not a reliable indicator of how a country was doing, given that it depended on how much testing was being done; and that Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate was higher than two of its neighbors. 

As of Aug. 4, 42% of Sweden’s population was fully vaccinated; that compares with 49% in the U.S. and 50% in the EU, according to Our World in Data. Sweden’s guidelines emphasize staying at home, testing, hand washing and social distancing.

We found Sweden’s COVID-19 death counts for July 2021 a bit higher than the nine the post claims. Sweden had a cumulative 14,630 COVID-19 deaths as of July 1, 2021, and 14,655 on July 31 — an increase of 25, according to Our World in Data. 

How the post is misleading

The post looks at deaths only for July 2021. But Sweden has seen wide variations in its COVID-19 caseloads and death toll since last year.

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By April 2021, there were signs that Sweden’s approach had flaws. At that point, the New Yorker reported, Sweden’s per-capita case counts and death rates were many times higher than any of its Nordic neighbors, all of which imposed lockdowns, travel bans and limited gatherings early on.

The latest figures show Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate is lower than in the European Union and the U.S. — but it has more than doubled in the past 10 months. 

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top epidemiologist, told PolitiFact that the death rate has risen in many countries. "We have had two severe waves. The excess mortality is comparably low," he said.

Excess mortality, as defined by the World Health Organization, is the difference between the observed numbers of deaths and the expected number of deaths for a specific time period.

Our World in Data’s measure of the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people shows that Sweden had higher spikes than those in the EU and the U.S. at several points during the pandemic, including early 2020 and early 2021. And for most of this year, its per capita confirmed cases have exceeded the figures for the U.S. and the EU.

Overall, Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate of 142.5 per 100,000 population is well above neighbors Denmark (43.89), Finland (17.84), Norway (15.03) and Iceland (8.3), according to Johns Hopkins University.

As for infections, after a wave in the spring of 2021, Sweden saw its infection rate drop, which officials attributed primarily to vaccinations and to people being outdoors more, Reuters reported

But now it’s on the rise again. 

In its latest weekly report, on Aug. 5, the Swedish Public Health Agency reported 3,451 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a 30% increase over the previous week. 

Our ruling

Deace claims that Sweden had few COVID deaths in July, despite low vaccination rates, relaxed lockdown rules and low mask compliance.

Sweden has imposed fewer restrictions than other countries and had few deaths in July, but its COVID-19 death rate has been above the U.S. and the EU at various times during the pandemic. Sweden has had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than its neighbors, and infections are rising.

The post cherry-picks data from a single month, and leaves out substantial context about Sweden’s COVID-19 experience since the pandemic began.

We rate the claim Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook post, Aug. 2, 2021 

Email, Steve Deace, Aug. 5, 2021

Swedish Public Health Agency, "Current weekly report on covid-19," Aug. 6, 2021

Swedish Public Health Agency, "Together we can slow down the spread of infection! It is everyone's responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19," July 1, 2021

PolitiFact, "No, Sweden is not faring the same as its locked down neighbors," April 28, 2020

Reuters, "Sweden to ease pandemic curbs despite worries over mounting Delta cases," July 12, 2021

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Sweden’s COVID-19 infection rate without shutdown," April 24, 2020

Our World in Data, vaccination data, accessed Aug. 4, 2021

Our World in Data, COVID-19 death rates, accessed Aug. 6, 2021

Our World in Data, COVID-19 deaths, accessed Aug. 4, 2021

Our World in Data, COVID-19 death rates, accessed Aug. 5, 2021, "Indications that Stockholm has reached herd immunity, given limited restrictions, against several variants of SARS-CoV-2," July 13, 2021

Johns Hopkins University, "Summary of Vaccination Statistics — International," accessed Aug. 4, 2021

Johns Hopkins University, "Cases and mortality by country," accessed Aug. 5, 2021

New Yorker, "Sweden’s Pandemic Experiment," April 6, 2021

Email, epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, director of the Swedish Public Health Agency, Aug. 5, 2021

Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, "This is how the restrictions will be lifted," July 2, 2021

World Health Organization, "Swedish situation," accessed Aug. 5, 2021

Email, Patrick Heuveline, a professor of sociology at UCLA who studies pandemic mortality rates, Aug. 5, 2021

Email, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor and director of global health studies at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Aug. 5, 2021

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Sweden’s low COVID-19 death tally in July ignores other markers of pandemic’s toll

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