Pandemic fears are boosting demand for trustworthy news; And What Have We Learned from Sweden’s Experience?

During these last few months of the pandemic one of my concerns is the lack consistent reliable data with which the media pundits of all sorts deliver their predictions and many times with false knowledge and predictions. Question, what is the correct social distancing length? Studies keep on changing! One of the key features of the web is its ability to turn regular people into citizen journalists. The cost of publishing text on the web is almost nil. The barriers to entry in the media industry are low, too. And many readers are not picky about where their news comes from: the stories that go viral can come from amateur scribes or veteran ones, media startups or established outfits. But this is not always the case. New research suggests that when a crisis hits, readers turn to reliable sources.

In 2018 Paul Resnick and James Park, two researchers at the University of Michigan, devised a pair of tools for measuring the popularity of English-language news stories on Facebook and Twitter. The first, dubbed the “Mainstream Quotient”, measured the proportion of highly-shared links that came from mainstream news sources, such as the New York Times, the BBC and, yes, The Economist. The second, the “Iffy Quotient”, measured the share originating from less trustworthy sources, based on ratings provided by NewsGuard, a company that tracks misinformation published online.

Both indices have shifted significantly during the pandemic. Beginning in February, when the coronavirus started to spread outside China, traffic to traditional media outlets and news sites surged, whereas dodgier sites attracted fewer readers. The Mainstream Quotient rose steadily during this period, a phenomenon Messrs Resnick and Park call a “flight to quality”. The Iffy Quotient, meanwhile, tumbled. The drop was particularly steep during March, when many countries instituted lockdown measures (see chart).

The researchers argue that consumers seek out reliable news sources during times of uncertainty, in the same way that fearful investors turn to gold. Whether these patterns will last remain unclear. The Iffy Quotient has already started to creep back up, for both Facebook and Twitter. And recent efforts by social-media platforms to crack down on fake news may prove only temporary. Once the pandemic subsides, demand for unreliable news may return to pre-covid levels. For now, at least, the flight to quality has taken off.

Pandemic Spike in Telehealth Levels Off

Crystal Phend of MedPage pointed out that Telehealth’s early bonanza during the pandemic has given way to persistently elevated use in primary care, a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report showed.

Analysis of Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) data showed an increase in Medicare primary care visits from 0.1% of all primary care in February to 43.5% in April, representing an increase from about 2,000 to 1.28 million telehealth visits per week.

Meanwhile, there was a “precipitous” drop in in-person visits for primary care in mid-March as COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., then a rise from mid-April through May, according to the report from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Use of telehealth in primary care “declined somewhat but appears to have leveled off at a persistent and significant level by the beginning of June,” the report noted. It still accounted for 22.7% of Medicare beneficiaries’ primary care visits as of June 3rd.

Overall, weekly primary care visit rates have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“Based on early experience with Medicare primary care telehealth at the start of the COVID-19 public health emergency, there is evidence that Medicare’s new telehealth flexibilities played a critical role in helping to maintain access to primary health care services — when many beneficiaries and providers were concerned with transmission of COVID-19,” the authors noted. “The stable and sustained use of telehealth after in-person primary care visits started to resume in mid-April suggests there may be continued demand for telehealth in Medicare, even after the pandemic ends.”

The findings overall match those from healthcare provider databases suggesting a 60% to 70% drop in health care office visits, partially offset by telehealth visits, with the start of the pandemic. Drug market research firm IQVIA has reported from physician surveys that about 9% of patient interactions were via telehealth prior to the pandemic but 51% during the shutdown, with expectation of a 21% rate after the pandemic, the HHS report noted.

There have been calls for Medicare to make the loosened rules around telemedicine permanent, and some legislative movement in that direction, but private insurers have signaled the opposite.

Fred Pelzman, MD, an internal medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City (and MedPage Today columnist), said an informal survey of his patients indicated they would be willing to do up to 50% of their care via video tools.

“We went from a handful of video visits in our practice to several thousand over the course of the months,” he said. “It’s a great way to take care of people, kept a lot of people safe, we think. What has happened is that as we started to open our practice back up again and offer appointments, the floodgates have opened and patients are declining video visits.”

Those patients opting for in-person visits tend to be older, braving what feels like a quiet time in the pandemic for the state to take care of necessary visits, he noted. “I think ultimately that we’ll plateau. It will probably come down a little more.”

The study included Medicare FFS Part B claims from January through May 2020 for primary care services along with preliminary Medicare Part B primary care claims data up to June 3. Primary care services included evaluation and management, preventive services, and advance care planning.

Telehealth usage increased most in urban counties early in the pandemic and saw smaller declines in May compared with rural counties across the country. Among cities, Boston had the greatest proportion of primary care visits by telehealth (73.1%) and Phoenix the lowest (37%).

Notably, the rate “was not strongly associated with differences in COVID-19 severity across cities as measured by rate of hospitalizations per thousand Medicare FFS beneficiaries,” the report pointed out.

I read an article predicting that telehealth visits are the future of medicine. This is truly worrisome due to the many incorrect diagnoses as well as poor control of chronic diseases that I have seen coming through my office alone. Physical diagnosis is made by looking at the patient, listening to the patient, hearing what the patient is really saying, touching the patient and using the different diagnostic tools such stethoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, otoscopes, percussion hammers, etc. to make the correct diagnoses and to follow our patients. How is that done virtually? The only ones benefitting the most from these virtually visits are the practices and the electronic medical record companies selling the practices additional software to utilize telehealth. And patients are finding that not all telehealth “visits” are paid for by their insurance companies.

How Did Sweden Flatten Its Curve Without a Lockdown?

One expert credits a “good-enough strategy”; others worry that it won’t last. Who is correct?

Kristina Fiore, Director of Enterprise & Investigative Reporting, MedPage reported that

Despite never implementing a full-scale lockdown, Sweden has managed to flatten its curve, prompting its health leadership to claim victory — but others question the cost of the strategy, as the country has a far higher death toll than its Scandinavian neighbors.

In late July, Sweden’s 7-day moving average of new cases was about 200, down from a peak of around 1,140 in mid-June. Its daily death totals have been in the single digits for two weeks, well below its mid-April peak of 115 deaths in a single day.

However, on a per-capita basis, Sweden far outpaces its Scandinavian neighbors in COVID deaths, with 567 deaths per million people compared with Denmark’s 106 deaths per million, Finland’s 59 deaths per million, and Norway’s 47 deaths per million. The Swedish figure is closer to Italy’s 581 deaths per million.

While the positive trends have led Anders Tegnell, PhD, chief epidemiologist at the Swedish Public Health Agency and architect of Sweden’s coronavirus strategy, to state that the “Swedish strategy is working,” others have criticized the approach, including two dozen Swedish academics who published a recent USA Today editorial.

“In Sweden, the strategy has led to death, grief, and suffering,” they wrote. “On top of that, there are no indications that the Swedish economy has fared better than in many other countries. At the moment, we have set an example for the rest of the world on how not to deal with a deadly infectious disease.”

The Swedish Public Health Agency has not openly stated that herd immunity was its goal, though many suspect that this was the intention. Tegnell told reporters last week he thought the recent trends indicated that immunity was now widespread in the country. But with rates of antibody positivity around 10%, that seems impossible. (Officials at the agency did not respond to MedPage Today‘s request for comment.)

So how has Sweden managed to get its outbreak under control?

Behavior Change

While Sweden didn’t officially lock down, many in the country have described a locked-down “feeling” that has eased in the summer months.

At the start of the outbreak, only high schools and universities closed; daycare and elementary schools have been open. Businesses have also remained open, but typically at reduced hours, and restaurants have functioned at reduced capacity.

Swedes have been asked to keep their distance in public, refrain from non-essential travel, and work from home when possible. Gatherings of more than 50 people are also banned. People age 70 and over are advised to stay away from others as much as possible.

Masks were never required and aren’t commonly worn.

This response hasn’t changed over time, through the June surge and into today’s decline, so there’s no definitive explanation for the flattening, though, and experts have several theories.

“Swedes in general have changed their behavior to a great extent during the pandemic and the practice of social distancing as well as physical distancing in public places and at work has been widespread,” said Maria Furberg, MD, PhD, an infectious diseases expert at Umea University Hospital in northeastern Sweden.

“During the months of March to early June, all shops were practically empty, people stopped dining with friends, and families stopped seeing even their closest relatives,” Furberg told MedPage Today. “A lock-down could not have been more effective. Handwashing, excessive use of hand sanitizers, and staying home at the first sign of a cold became the new normal very quickly.”

Mozhu Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist at the famed Karolinska Institute, said the decline is “likely to be a combination of measures taken by individuals, businesses and a widespread information campaign launched by the government.”

“Even without a strict lockdown order, many businesses allowed employees to work from home, and universities are offering distance courses to the students,” Ding told MedPage Today. “Individuals are also taking personal hygiene more seriously, as items like hand sanitizers and single-use gloves are often sold out in pharmacies and grocery stores.”

Immunity

Experts told MedPage Today there weren’t clear data to prove Tegnell’s assertion of widespread immunity in Sweden.

Furberg said there is likely “some sort of unspecific immunity that protects parts of the population from contracting COVID-19” but it’s not necessarily secondary to SARS-CoV-2 exposure.

For instance, a study by the Karolinska Institute and Karolinska University Hospital recently found that about 30% of people with mild or asymptomatic COVID showed T-cell-mediated immunity to the virus, even though they tested negative for antibodies.

“This figure is [more than] twice as high as the previous antibody tests, meaning that the public immunity to COVID-19 is probably much higher than what antibody studies have suggested,” Ding told MedPage Today. “This is of course very good news from a public health perspective, as it shows that people with negative antibody test results could still be immune to the virus at a cellular level.”

Indeed, T-cell immunity is coming into focus as a potentially important factor in COVID infection. A paper published in Nature in mid-July found that among 37 healthy people who had no history of either the first or current SARS virus, more than half had T cells that recognized one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins.

Another 36 people who had mild-to-severe COVID-19 were all found to have T-cell responses to several SARS-CoV-2 proteins, and another 23 people who had SARS-CoV-1 (the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2003) all had lasting memory T cells — even 17 years later — that also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.

It could be that T cell immunity is the result of a previous infection with common cold coronaviruses, but this hasn’t yet been established; nor is it certain that T cell immunity is driving Sweden’s decline in COVID cases.

Path Forward

Summertime is another factor that may account for the decline, which began around late June — not directly because of the weather, but social factors related to it.

Swedes are “outdoors more, and students are not at school,” said Anne Spurkland, MD, a professor of immunology at the University of Oslo in Norway.

Also, “perhaps Sweden has finally gotten better control over the disastrous spread of the virus in nursing homes which to some extent can explain their relatively high death rates,” Spurkland told MedPage Today. About half of Sweden’s 5,730 deaths occurred among those in elder care homes.

Norway is still requiring that Swedes quarantine for 10 days when coming into Norway, and Denmark has not fully reopened its borders to its neighbor yet either.

That doesn’t bode well for the Swedish economy. If the goal of avoiding a lockdown was to spare economic woe, its success has been limited.

According to Business Insider, “international tourism and trade are decimated. … Sweden’s National Institute of Economic Research predicts Sweden’s GDP will fall 5.4% in 2020, after predicting a 1% rise [in] December 2019. It also expects unemployment to rise around three percentage points, to 9.6%, between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021.”

Spurkland said it’s still “too early yet to conclude whether the Swedish approach was the wisest over all,” as it remains to be seen whether Norway and other countries that did lock down will avoid a second wave of infections in the fall.

Yet she cautions that choosing to take on a higher case load may have health consequences far beyond the immediate infection.

“What we have learned these months is that COVID-19 is not only about death, it is also about ill health,” Spurkland said. “Quite a number of people going through the infection have long-term symptoms, that may be stopping them from resuming their daily life. We do not know yet how large a proportion of those who get the virus will fall into this category, but it is certainly a concern.”

“So, when deciding on taking a herd immunity approach to handle a totally new virus we do not know anything about,” she said, “the Swedish government has also unknowingly put the general population at risk for much long-term ill-health caused by the virus.”

Furberg doesn’t see it that way: “I am very proud of the way Swedes have adapted to the restrictions and regulations and I believe the Public Health Agency of Sweden has picked a good-enough strategy for our country.”

What Americans Need to Understand About the Swedish Coronavirus Experiment

Sweden made headlines for never shutting down. Here’s what’s really happening there.

Matthew Zeitlin pointed out that Tooutsiders, life in Stockholm, Sweden, appears perfectly normal: Walk down a cobblestone street, and you may see two friends sitting at a cafe enjoying the spring air or a group of kids kicking a soccer ball in the park. Cars and bicyclists may zip by; a family may walk past you on their afternoon stroll.

Whereas most of the Western world has been in lockdown for weeks, Sweden has opted to forgo any sort of shelter-in-place policy in response to the coronavirus and instead allow businesses and parks to stay open and groups of under 50 to gather.

That’s not to say the country hasn’t been proactive at all. The policy in effect in Sweden is similar to what had been implemented in much of the United States before shelter-in-place orders were issued — and the one that will soon be in place in states that reopen. The Swedish government has recommended that people wash their hands frequently, maintain social distance, work from home if they can, and those who are elderly or more susceptible to Covid-19 stay home. The government recommended that universities switch to online teaching; they quickly followed course. Social distance is required by law in restaurants, and bar service is banned. The government changed its sick leave rules to encourage anyone who is feeling symptoms to stay home. “Instead of saying ‘close down all of society,’ we have looked at society and closed down… aspects of society,” where the disease is most likely to spread, Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency in charge of recommending policy to the government, told The Daily Show. “I think that’s had a great effect.”

Sweden may not be so much an alternative, as a glimpse of the future.

Sweden’s approach has been hailed by critics of American and European pandemic policies as a less restrictive — and less economically devastating — alternative to state or national shutdowns, but it’s also been lambasted by others as an unnecessarily risky strategy that has led Sweden to have the highest Covid-19 death toll among the Nordic nations. As more and more areas of the United States reopen, Sweden may not be so much an alternative as a glimpse of the future.

As of Sunday afternoon, the country had 25,921 confirmed cases and3,220deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. These are much higher figures than those of the country’s neighbors, but lower than those in some other wealthy Western European countries on both an overall and population-adjusted basis. Sweden also has suffered problems familiar to residents of countries that have had more severe outbreaks and stricter policies. Nursing homes have been hard hit, and Tegnell described Sweden’s failure to protect nursing home residents as its greatest shortcoming so far. Immigrant and ethnic minority communities also have suffered, due in part to their larger households. Just over half of all households in Sweden in 2016 consisted of only one person, while immigrants were substantially more likely than native-born residents to live in overcrowded conditions or multigenerational household.

Even with the less aggressive containment measures, the economic effects of the virus have been severe for the country. Sweden’s National Institute for Economic Research projected that gross domestic product would contract by 7% in 2020 and the unemployment rate would rise to just over 10%. The large fall in consumer and business confidence, the institute said in a release, point “to a rapid and severe downturn, not least in large parts of the service sector.”

“The economy will shrink both due to a drop in exports and is already contracting due to lower consumption. But the underlying causes differ: The export sector is mostly affected by the international situation, whereas the drop in consumption is directly related to the government’s recommendation of social distancing,” said Lina Maria Ellegård, an economist at Lund University.

In the first three months of the year, the Swedish economy contracted by less than 1% — less than the United States’ fall — but the production of both goods and services declined in March. The car industry — one of Sweden’s major export sectors — along with real estate, hospitality, and restaurants led the way.

That’s because even without lockdowns or orders, the behavior of Swedes still changed — to an extent. According to data collected by Google and Apple, Swedes have cut back on their travel to places like stores and restaurants and decreased their use of transit-like buses substantially, though not as dramatically as their Nordic neighbors in Denmark. Still, travel over the Easter holiday fell by 90%, Tegnell said on The Daily Show.

Multiple experts in Sweden I spoke to agreed that because a recommendation made by Swedish leadership is culturally viewed as more of a demand, the freedoms allowed have not resulted in free-for-alls. “There’s a basic misconception that there’s one big huge after-ski party,” said Lars Trägårdh, a Swedish historian. “That’s not true.”

Sweden’s voluntary restrictions policy is made possible by the high levels of trust throughout Swedish society. “We have a lot of social trust and a lot of trust in the institutions, and the institutions have confidence in the citizens,” said Trägårdh. “That’s why we decided to have this voluntary approach as opposed to one that’s more hardcore.”

The photos circulating online don’t fully represent the broader reality on the ground either. “I’ve seen pictures in the newspapers and news media of what looks to be crowded restaurants in Stockholm. What I’ve seen is mostly pretty sparse restaurants. Every other table is empty, and there’s very little business,” said Bo Becker, an economist at the Stockholm School of Economics. “Life doesn’t go on as usual, but maybe the lockdown is less severe than in other countries.”

But even if Sweden’s policy of allowing businesses to open and people to move out and about is not that different from some policies American states have or will soon implement, there’s been one major difference: the schools. Schools for children up to age 15 have remained open, all the way down to daycares and preschool. “That makes a world of difference,” Trägårdh told me. “It’s a gender issue.”

Sweden has one of the highest rates of female participation in the labor force for rich countries. Forcing young children to stay home would put many mothers in a bind or even knock them out of the workforce entirely.

“Closing down schools works well if you are in a well-to-do, middle-class family that has a house and a garden and can afford to have one person staying at home,” Trägårdh said. “That may not look like a doable proposition if you are a single parent or do not make a lot of money.”

Shutting down daycare and schools could increase risk as well, Erik Angner, a philosopher and economist at Stockholm University, explained, by leading working parents to turn to their own parents for help. “If you close daycares, then either one parent has to stop working or grandma or grandpa shows up,” he said. But since the elderly are most at risk, it was even more important to keep schools and daycares open

As other countries work through their peak infections, they will have to figure out how to reach a new status quo where the disease’s spread is still slow but restrictions can be lightened. “Now that everybody else is starting to shift toward opening up, people are talking about Sweden,” said Trägårdh. “Other Nordics are realizing you can’t keep schools closed forever. We’re in the long run here. It’s not a 60-meter race, it’s more like a marathon.”

While Sweden has a higher death rate than its Nordic neighbors and other wealthy European nations like Germany, it has been lower than rates in the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. According to the Financial Times’ figures, Sweden has seen an 18% jump in excess deaths since the start of the outbreak, while Denmark has seen a 5% rise. Excess deaths in England and Wales are up 37%.

“The data out of Finland, Norway, and Denmark looks much better,” said Angner. “But everything will hinge on what will happen next.”

There’s some evidence that Sweden has managed to take the heaviest blow from the virus already — about a fourth or fifth of the population of Stockholm may have been infected, which would put the infection rate at a level similar to that found in New York City, which has had many more deaths and been under a near-total lockdown for almost two months. On Tuesday, health officials in Stockholm said the number of new deaths linked to Covid-19 was slowly decreasing from one week to the next.

The Swedish example carries both optimistic and pessimistic tidings for the United States as it embraces a partial, scattered reopening cheered on by the White House. It suggests that, even without punitive mandates, people can and will take measures to keep themselves safe from the disease. But even though people are protecting themselves without formal orders, the economy will be only slightly better off than it was under lockdown. Meanwhile, the American push to reopen is being driven by distrust of the government combined with the absence of robust safety-net programs to stem the economic bleeding. In the American context, Sweden’s example may be no example at all.

As a paper that was just accepted for publication, written by this author and two coauthors, we need reliable data to evaluate our progress as well as our failures to predict, based on appropriate statistical models and in order to lead us all in the correct path for future strategies for this pandemic and future crises.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s