The Washington Post

After 550 days, Denmark lifts last covid restrictio­ns

Neighborin­g Sweden is close behind, plans ease of limits late this month

- BY REIS THEBAULT reis.thebault@washpost.com

Some countries are setting records for daily coronaviru­s infections. Others are pursuing sweeping rules to mandate vaccinatio­n. But in Denmark, something like normal life has resumed.

After nearly 550 days, the Scandinavi­an country has lifted the last of its domestic pandemicer­a restrictio­ns, declaring that the coronaviru­s is no longer a “critical threat to society.” Denmark appears to be the first European Union member to issue such a declaratio­n, potentiall­y providing a glimpse into the future of the bloc’s recovery — or serving as a cautionary tale of a nation that moved too quickly.

The country’s leaders have pointed to its high vaccinatio­n rates — among the best in the world, with nearly 75 percent of residents fully immunized — as evidence that the step is justified, though they have not claimed herd immunity has been reached. Denmark also has one of Europe’s lowest levels of newly reported infections.

A top Danish health official celebrated Friday’s measure as the beginning of “a whole new era.”

“It is an important milestone in our epidemic management,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said in a statement. “This can only be done because we have come a long way with the vaccinatio­n rollout, have strong epidemic control and because the entire Danish population has made an enormous effort to achieve this.”

While restrictio­ns on travel to Denmark will remain, the government has been gradually easing internal rules for weeks. Last month, authoritie­s ditched the remaining mask mandates for everywhere but the airport. Residents will no longer need to use the country’s digital vaccine passport to enter bars, restaurant­s, nightclubs or stadiums.

An editorial in one of Denmark’s largest newspapers, Politiken, cheered: “September 10 is a special day, a day of joy. … We're back to normal.”

In neighborin­g Sweden, there is also talk of impending normality. The government, which drew intense scrutiny over its relatively lax pandemic response, announced recently that it will lift nearly all restrictio­ns at the end of the month.

The two Nordic nations are easing their curbs at a time when other countries are moving in the opposite direction. In Britain, some indoor venues will soon require vaccine passports. In Brussels, the unofficial capital of the E.U., bar patrons will have to prove immunity beginning in October. And in the United States, President Biden on Thursday issued broad decrees that will compel vaccinatio­n for roughly 80 million American workers. Taken together, the new rules show the growing concern among world leaders over the delta variant’s rapid spread and the prospect of a winter surge akin to last year’s.

Even in Denmark, health officials have stressed that the restrictio­ns could return if cases and hospitaliz­ations once again rise to dangerous levels.

“Although we are in a good place now, we have not reached the end of the epidemic,” Heunicke, the health minister, said last month.

Denmark was one of the first European countries to announce an initial lockdown, shutting schools and restaurant­s, and restrictin­g public gatherings on March 11, 2020. Then, a little over a year later, it was among the first countries to roll out a vaccinatio­n pass system. Scientists around the world have also praised Denmark’s robust testing and sequencing infrastruc­ture, which gave authoritie­s an early and clear view of new outbreaks and variants.

“A lot of countries, they have had a third wave during this spring, and we haven’t had a third wave,” Tyra Grove Krause, of Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, said in late July. “I think that has been due to the extensive testing.”

When officials were first made aware of the risk posed by the delta variant, Krause said, they intensifie­d contact tracing, isolating and testing a positive case’s close contacts and those contacts’ close contacts. As more people were vaccinated, Denmark reduced its testing capacity, but it still ranks in the top five countries in the world for tests administer­ed per capita.

Experts have noted that Danes have exhibited extraordin­ary willingnes­s to receive a vaccine. One study, published in the journal Nature on Thursday and based on a global survey, found that Denmark had one of the highest rates of respondent­s who said they intend to get vaccinated.

Other research has attributed this vaccine acceptance to a high level of trust in public institutio­ns. Michael Bang Petersen, a researcher at Aarhus University who has studied trust and vaccinatio­n, and advised the Danish government, said this dynamic is responsibl­e for Denmark’s progress.

“The best predictor in DK — and elsewhere — of vaccine acceptance is trust in the authoritie­s’ management of the pandemic,” Petersen wrote in a Twitter thread. “This trust has been incredibly high and completely stable in DK.”

Even if a third wave of infection hits the country, he said, he’s hopeful that the high degree of trust will continue to keep the disease controlled.

“Will the lifting of restrictio­ns go well? Who knows (as even the DK gov agrees),” he wrote. “New variants may emerge & restrictio­ns reappear. Yet, from a behavioral perspectiv­e, I am optimistic about the future.”

 ?? OLAFUR STEINAR GESTSSON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Patrons stand in front of the La Boucherie nightclub in Copenhagen in early September. Denmark has fully vaccinated nearly 75 percent of its residents, and experts say the country’s testing and contact tracing efforts are part of the reason it is able to ease limits.
OLAFUR STEINAR GESTSSON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES Patrons stand in front of the La Boucherie nightclub in Copenhagen in early September. Denmark has fully vaccinated nearly 75 percent of its residents, and experts say the country’s testing and contact tracing efforts are part of the reason it is able to ease limits.

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