COVID in Europe: Sweden recommends a fourth vaccine for the elderly

Swedish health authorities have recommended a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for citizens over the age of 80.

Nursing home residents or those receiving home care are also encouraged to receive a fourth vaccine, as long as it is at least four months after their last dose.

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said a fourth vaccine “strengthens protection” against serious diseases, according to the Swedish Public Health Agency.

Sweden last week lifted almost all of its anti-Covid restrictions and halted large-scale testing for COVID-19, even among people with symptoms of infection.

Among other changes, bars and restaurants are no longer required to close at 11 p.m. and rules on gatherings will be relaxed.

Vaccination passes will no longer be required to enter public places, while the recommendation to wear a mask on public transport during peak periods has also been removed.

“The pandemic is not over, but we are entering a whole new phase…knowledge has improved…several studies show that Omicron leads to less severe illnesses,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said.

Even though the Omicron variant caused a spike in infections, it did not translate into an increase in hospitalizations in Sweden. More than 83% of the population over the age of 12 have received two doses of the vaccine to date, and just under 50% have received three doses.

If “the overall assessment shows that we can start to return to normal”, the government “will continue to be vigilant as to the evolution of the pandemic”, declared Swedish Minister of Health Lena Hallengren.

Some recommendations remain in place for the unvaccinated – such as avoiding crowds indoors.

Neighboring Denmark has become the first EU country to lift almost all coronavirus restrictions, while also considering “reducing” the country’s coronavirus vaccination programme.

“The very high vaccination coverage in Denmark, especially with the third vaccine, means that we can cope with the increase in infection without contracting serious illness,” the Danish Health Authority said in a statement.

Germany plans to remove most restrictions in March

The German government meanwhile is expected to phase out most of its anti-COVID restrictions from March 20.

Restrictions on unvaccinated citizens could be eased or removed, although face masks could remain compulsory on public transport and indoors.

In a first step of the easing measures, the maximum vaccinated capacity authorized during private gatherings could increase from 10 to 20, according to a government plan unveiled on Monday.

Restaurants and hotels could also welcome more customers from March 4, while nightclubs and concert halls could also reopen.

The number of new infections in Germany fell by 20% compared to the previous week, with 76,465 new daily cases reported on Monday.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the heads of the federal states are due to meet on Wednesday to discuss a possible lifting of restrictions.

Germany’s Constitutional Court last week rejected efforts to block a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health workers. Staff in nursing homes, hospitals and private health centers will have to prove by March 15 that they have been vaccinated against the virus or risk being banned from working.

The measure – which was approved by the German parliament in December – drew backlash from dozens of medical workers. Bavaria’s regional government voted to scrap the measure, led by the conservative CDU opposition.

Germany is also currently debating a nationwide vaccine mandate that would come into effect in October.

Czech Republic among last to lift most restrictions

Residents of the Czech Republic no longer need to present COVID passes from Thursday to access bars, restaurants, cafes and hairdressers, as well as sporting and cultural events.

It comes after the Czech government moved forward on Wednesday in easing coronavirus restrictions.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his government would lift further measures this month, depending on the evolution of the pandemic, with the majority of restrictions lifted by March 1.

Czech Health Minister Vlastimil Valek said that from February 19, up to 5,000 people will now be allowed to attend concerts and sports competitions, up from 1,000 currently.

The government had previously decided to end compulsory coronavirus testing in schools and businesses.

Coronavirus cases rose from a daily record of more than 57,000 on February 1 to 37,600 on Tuesday, still the seventh highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic.

The Czech Republic has recorded 3.3 million infections and 37,612 virus-related deaths during the pandemic.

The nation of 10.5 million people has more than 6.8 million people fully vaccinated and nearly 3.9 million who have received a booster shot.

Italy and France end face mask requirement

Italy and France also relaxed anti-COVID measures on Friday by removing the requirement to wear masks.

Face masks would no longer be compulsory outdoors while nightclubs would also reopen, the Italian health ministry has announced.

But wearing a mask in closed places remains compulsory for the time being, at least until March 31.

Nightclub visitors will still need a vaccination pass to enter, while venue capacity is also limited to between 50% and 75%.

Over 91% of Italian citizens over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while over 35% of children aged 5-11 have also been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the French government has also declared that face masks will soon no longer be mandatory in public places where the vaccination pass is needed, the government said on Friday.

The new measure for bars, restaurants and cultural venues is due to be introduced on February 28.

James C. Tibbs