by Patrick Ekstrand, Fu Yiming, He Miao
STOCKHOLM, February 23 (Xinhua) – “I coughed, was nauseous and had a headache. My whole body ached”, said a Swedish man who was recently diagnosed with covid-19 for the fourth time despite being completely vaccinated for Xinhua.
“At the beginning of this month, I became ill again,” he said. On condition of anonymity, the 43-year-old said he recognized the symptoms of previous infections, which increased his sense of helplessness. “I was also extremely tired and bedridden for two weeks.”
By then, he had already managed three confirmed infections. The first time, he recalled, he fell ill in the spring of 2020. At that time, his symptoms were similar to those of his most recent illness, but not as severe. He was re-infected for the second time four months later. He then tested positive and had relatively mild symptoms.
But the nightmare did not end there. He tested positive again in the autumn of 2021, despite working from home, shopping for food online and avoiding cramped spaces outdoors. He suspects that he may have received the virus from his children, as Sweden has kept primary schools open throughout the pandemic.
Reinfections seem to be far from rare. The emergence of the Omicron variant of coronavirus dramatically increased the number of active cases throughout Sweden, which removed virtually all covid-19 restrictions on 9 February.
In the first week of February, reinfections accounted for 11 percent of all confirmed cases in Sweden, according to a report released by the country’s public health authority on 18 February. One month earlier, the respective figure was just over five percent.
Although re-infections occurred during the first year of the pandemic, they have become more common as the virus’ nail proteins have evolved, Ali Mirazimi, a professor of clinical virology at Karolinska Institutet’s Medical University here, told Xinhua.
“Omicron is very different from the previous virus variants, which has contributed to the increase in the number of re-infections,” he said, adding that although vaccines and previous infections reduce the risk of serious illness and death, immunity declines rapidly.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sweden has used a “light touch” lockdown strategy, which has resulted in the country being the most affected of all five Nordic states in terms of deaths. It has registered more than twice as many deaths per capita as Denmark and almost six times as many as Norway.
The usefulness of wearing a mask was also questioned by the Swedish authorities – at least in the beginning. Later, they began promoting worm-bearing in cramped indoor spaces, and this confused the public.
When Omicron hit the country hard in January, critical services risked collapsing because an extraordinary number of employees were on sick leave or in quarantine. To prevent this from happening, the government decided to ease the quarantine rules.
Just three weeks later, the restrictions were scrapped despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) repeated warning that the restrictions must not be removed too soon.
The effect of the relaxation was immediate with people rushing to bars and restaurants despite the still high number of infections. At the same time, many vaccination centers reported waves of canceled meetings.
Sweden’s decision to remove the covid-19 restrictions was nevertheless quite uncontroversial and unchallenged within the country. The only concern raised was whether all restrictions would be lifted at once.
“It is impossible to say whether the restrictions were lifted at the right time or whether they should have happened one or a few weeks later. But for society to function, they must be lifted sooner or later,” Mirazimi said.
On 21 February, the Swedish Public Health Agency released a report on how the situation may develop. In one scenario, the authority speculates that another virus variant may appear and lead to another peak before the summer. Although this is considered unlikely, there are concerns that COVID-19 could have other potentially widespread consequences.
After his latest symptoms, the 43-year-old Swede, who has already had covid-19 four times, still has constant pain. “I also suffer from short-term memory and struggle to remember what happened the day before.”
Because of this, he is scheduled to be screened for a possible post-COVID condition, which experts describe as a wide range of recurring or ongoing health problems.
Nearly 6,700 individuals in Sweden have been diagnosed with post-COVID-19 syndrome since October 2020, according to statistics released by the National Board of Health and Welfare last week.
In the absence of thorough research, Mirazimi could not predict whether post-COVID may become more common as more individuals are re-infected.
“We have very little knowledge. After all, we hardly even know why people get post-COVID in the first place,” he said.