Feb. 17, 2022 -- Since Denmark became the first major country to lift its remaining coronavirus restrictions at the beginning of February, it has recorded more COVID-19 cases per capita than most other places in the world.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have jumped by nearly a third, signaling a warning to the U.S. and other countries that are now easing mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and limits for crowded spaces such as bars and nightclubs, according to Yahoo News.
“Not looking good in Denmark. Deaths are now 67% of peak with a steep ascent,” Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote in a Twitter post this week.
He shared charts that showed sharp increases in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions, and deaths from early February to mid-February. In a response to comments, he linked to a news story from September, when Denmark previously lifted all restrictions before cases climbed again.
“The world is looking to Denmark as a guide to removing all restrictions,” Topol said. “It seems that we’ve seen this movie before.”
In late January, COVID-19 cases appeared to peak in Denmark. After the emergence of BA.2, the Omicron subvariant, cases began to rise again and reached a new all-time high on Feb. 13, surpassing the record from December 2020.
Hospitalizations also climbed in Denmark, surpassing the U.K. rate in early February and the U.S. rate this week. About 1½ times more Danes are now hospitalized with COVID-19 than ever before during the pandemic. If COVID-19 deaths continue to increase, Denmark could set a record in coming days, Yahoo News reported.
But Danish health officials have pointed out that hospital burden is still low in the country, compared to former surges. Denmark also tests far more people than in the U.K. and the U.S., the news outlet reported.
In addition, about 81% of Danes are fully vaccinated, including 95% of those over age 65, and 62% have received a booster dose, according to the latest data from the Danish Health Authority. Overall, Danes have remained protected against COVID-19 and have less severe illness.
“Overall mortality in Denmark in all age categories has now fallen into the normal spectrum as Omicron has become fully dominant,” Søren Neermark, an official at the Danish Health Authority, wrote in a Twitter thread on Monday.
At the same time, he noted, Denmark shouldn’t necessarily be used as a model for other countries.
“Denmark cannot be used as a (sole) argument for lifting restrictions or maintaining restrictions in other countries,” he wrote. “The capacity of the healthcare system in each country will vary and the same [with] overall vaxrate, trust, test, prior immunity etc.”
In reality, countries will need to decide based on their own factors, and restrictions will likely toggle on and off in response to changing conditions, Kristian Andersen, PhD, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, said in a podcast this week. Andersen, a Danish expat, said he has been watching the situation in Denmark closely in recent weeks to understand the trends.
“We have to be realistic. If we say we’re not going to have restrictions, it’s up to you to get your boosters and wear a face mask if you can. … We should probably expect that for the next few years to come, most people will get infected a couple of times a year,” he said. “And we should expect 200,000 to 250,000 deaths [a year] in this country alone.”
To keep up with the coronavirus, countries will also need to prioritize innovation, namely with “better home testing, better masks, better vaccines, better antivirals,” Andersen said.
“But it also requires that we realize [COVID] is going to be a problem we’re going to continue to deal with during the next 5 to 10 years,” he said. “If we say it’s all over, my concern is that the innovation stops. Because then it’s like, ‘Well, what’s the point?’”