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ANALYSIS: Why has the number of Covid-19 cases in Denmark increased so quickly?

Denmark has repeatedly broken its highest ever daily coronavirus case total this week and posted over 4,500 cases on Friday. What's going on?

ANALYSIS: Why has the number of Covid-19 cases in Denmark increased so quickly?
People queue for Covid-19 testing in Frederiksberg on December 18th. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

During the first coronavirus wave, Denmark was largely praised for keeping its number of Covid-19 deaths and cases low relative to other countries, and for being able to end its lockdown relatively early, notably with the reopening of schools.

However, little more than a week after a partial lockdown was introduced in an effort to curb increasing cases, the country is tightening measures further as it grapples a sharp uptick in new Covid-19 infections.

READ ALSO: Denmark announces national Covid-19 lockdown from Christmas Day

Denmark again reported a record number of new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, as it has done regularly in recent days. Thursday’s total exceeded 4,000 cases in a day for the first time, with 4,034 cases detected from 124,707 tests. On Friday, 4,508 cases were registered from 141,172 tests.

The number of hospitalised Covid-19 patients increased on Friday by 52 to 568, exceeding for the first time the peak hospitalisation total from the spring wave of the virus, which stood at 535 on April 1st.

With Friday’s update, the total number of coronavirus deaths in Denmark surpassed 1,000. The current total is 1,007.

But why the sharp increase in cases?

The explosion in cases in Denmark has come later than in many other European countries, many have which have had lockdowns or other forms of tight restriction in place earlier in the winter or autumn.

Graph: Our World in Data

There is evidence to suggest that Danish health authorities should have responded earlier with interventions to slow its emerging second wave, despite restrictions introduced in late October which appeared for several weeks to be keeping the situation in check, keeping case numbers relatively stable albeit markedly higher than in the summer.

At least two experts have said they believe the Danish government broke with the cautious approach to which it adhered at the outset of the pandemic, resulting in the serious nature of the current situation.

“The government has acted too late. It’s not because the virus is out of control yet, but if Denmark had been closed down earlier, that would have taken the edge of the infection spread and made the situation more tolerable. Now were are fighting with an accelerating epidemic at the same time people want to celebrate Christmas,” Jan Pravsgaard, a professor of immunology at the University of Copenhagen, told Dagbladet Information on Friday.

Additionally, the lockdown announced on Wednesday – which takes full effect on Christmas day and involves the closure of all non-essential retail stores – may not be far-reaching enough, according to the professor.

“Zealand and Copenhagen are hardest-hit by corona at the moment, and there’s a risk that Zealanders will take the infection with them if they go to Jutland for Christmas, as it appears many are planning to do. It would have made sense to close the Great Belt [bridge connecting the eastern and western parts of Denmark, ed.], even though that would be unpopular,” Pravsgaard told Information.

The Danish Health Authority has no plans at the current time to recommend travel restrictions within Denmark, the authority's director Søren Brostrøm said at a briefing on Wednesday.

“That is not because we are not worried, but because we have very clear and precise recommendations with regard to social contact,” Brostrøm said.

Those recommendations are to see a maximum of 10 people socially at any one time, and not to have any form of social contact with more than 10 people.

What else could have been done?

Another researcher said that the ‘partial lockdown’ restrictions announced on December 7th and effective from December 9th in parts of the country – and now overtaken by the national lockdown – came too late, and should have been put in place around two weeks earlier.

“Partly because we wouldn’t then have had so many sick people right up to Christmas – when many people will gather – it would have been good to have a larger buffer in relation to the capacity at hospitals,” Viggo Andreasen, a mathematical epidemiologist at Roskilde University, told Information.

Andreasen also said that even though authorities waited until December 9th, they may have lost further ground by implanting a partial lockdown rather than further-reaching restrictions to close down all social activity.

“That would certainly been the most sensible action to avoid the pressure we are seeing on hospitals approaching Christmas,” he said.

It should be noted that Denmark has significantly increased the number of tests conducted daily compared to average numbers from the autumn, as reflected by current lags in waiting times for tests in some locations.

However, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, when she announced the Christmas lockdown on Wednesday, called the current coronavirus situation “very serious”, adding that just under half of Denmark's Covid-19 hospital beds were in use.

17 deaths with Covid-19 were registered on Thursday, the highest daily figure since the spring outbreak. Friday saw a further 15 deaths.

Pravsgaard told Information that, had Denmark reacted with lockdown-type restrictions when daily cases reached 800-1,000, as they did in late October, it may have passed the peak of the current infections curve by now – as has been the case in other European countries, including France, Italy and Spain, so far in late 2020.

“In those countries the consequences were taken and things were closed somewhat earlier, even though it resulted in demonstrations and discontent. Not just because of Christmas, but also because infection numbers have been increasing so fast. We should probably have done the same thing in Denmark instead of waiting until just before Christmas,” he said.

Member comments

  1. This article is more than a month old and the statistical information it quotes is quite different from the current situation.

    Why is it still on the “front page”?

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IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?

The number of new Covid-19 infections fell on Saturday for the second day in a row, following a three-day plateau at the start of last week. Has the omicron wave peaked?

IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?
Graffiti in the Copenhagen hippy enclave of Christiania complaining of Omicron's impact on Christmas. Photo: Philip Davali/Scanpix

How many cases, hospitalisations and deaths are there in Denmark? 

Denmark registered 12,588 new cases in the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, down from the 18,261 registered on in the day leading up to Friday at 2pm, which was itself a decline from the record 28,283 cases recorded on Wednesday. 

The cases were identified by a total of 174,517 PCR tests, bringing the positive percentage to 7.21 percent, down from the sky high rates of close to 12 percent seen in the first few days of January. 

The number of cases over the past seven days is lower than the week before in almost every municipality in Denmark, with only Vallensbæk, Aarhus, Holseterbro, Skanderborg, Hjørring, Vordingborg,  Ringkøbing, Kolding, Assens, Horsens, Thisted, and Langeland reporting rises. 

Hospitalisations have also started to fall, with some 730 patients being treated for Covid-10 on Saturday, down from 755 on Friday. On Tuesday, 794 were being treated for Covid-19 in Danish hospitals, the highest number since the peak of the 2020-21 winter wave.

The only marker which has not yet started to fall is the number of deaths, which tends to trail infections and hospitalisations. 

In the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, Denmark registered 28 deaths with Covid-19, the highest daily number recorded since 20 January 2021, when 29 people died with Covid-19 (although Denmark’s deadliest day was the 19 January 2021, when 39 people died). 

How does Denmark compare to other countries in Europe? 

Over the last seven days, Denmark has had the highest Covid-19 case rate of any country in Europe bar Ireland. The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since the start of December, apart from a brief fall over Christmas. 

So does this mean the omicron wave has peaked? 

Maybe, although experts are not sure. 

“Of course, you can hope for that, but I’m not sure that is the case,” said Christian Wejse, head of the Department for Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital. “I think it is too early to conclude that the epidemic has peaked.”

He said that patients with the Omicron variant were being discharged more rapidly on average than had been the case with those who had the more dangerous Delta variant. 

“Many admissions are relatively short-lived, thankfully. This is because many do not become that il, and are largely hospitalized because they are suffering with something else. And if they are stable and do not need oxygen, then they are quickly discharged again.” 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said during a visit to an event held by the Social Liberal party that the latest numbers made her even more optimistic about the coming month. 

“We have lower infection numbers and the number of hospitalisations is also plateauing,” she said. “I think we’re going to get through this winter pretty well, even if it will be a difficult time for a lot of people, and we are beginning to see the spring ahead of us, so I’m actually very optimistic.” 

She said that she had been encouraged by the fact that Omicron was a “visibly less dangerous variant if it is not allowed to explode.”