Stockholm rushes to stem nursing home COVID surge with visit ban, quick tests

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Stockholm scrambled on Wednesday to curb COVID-19 infections at its nursing homes, reimposing a ban on visits and piloting rapid-result coronavirus testing of staff.

FILE PHOTO: A sign reminding people to respect social distancing is seen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Central Station in Stockholm, Sweden November 09, 2020. TT News Agency/Amir Nabizadeh via REUTERS

Sweden’s nursing homes, particularly in the capital, were ravaged by the initial wave of the pandemic, prompting Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s sombre admission in May that the country failed to protect its elderly.

After slowing to a trickle in summer, infections at Stockholm’s nursing homes have shot up in recent weeks. Of the region’s 313 facilities, 48 now have cases, data showed, an increase of more than 20 from last week.

“It’s really, really frightening,” said Johan Styrud, chairman of the Swedish Medical Association in Stockholm and doctor at Danderyd Hospital.

“We must do everything we can to keep the infection from getting back into nursing homes again.”

More than 1,000 residents with COVID-19 have died at Stockholm’s nursing homes during the pandemic and with new cases climbing, local authorities on Wednesday to reimposed a ban on visitors which was dropped nationally last month.

“We are seeing a huge increase of confirmed cases and the past week has been dramatic,” Maria Rotzen Ostlund, acting chief epidemiologist in region of Stockholm, said.

“We’ve had fantastic increase in testing capacity (since spring outbreak) but right now it’s not enough.”

Surging demand has forced regions such as Stockholm to tighten requirements for standard laboratory PCR tests. Now a pilot project is being rolled out at city homes using rapid antigen tests to show within 15 minutes if a member of staff is infected.

Sweden’s Health Agency has estimated around 90% of confirmed cases at nursing homes were infected by staff amid a lack of safety equipment and testing during the early stages of the pandemic.

“This can be a gamechanger because now we can identify carriers of the virus before they spread it to elderly people,” said Stefan Amer, CEO of Familjelakarna, which provides medical services at roughly half the region’s nursing homes.

Antigen tests quickly detect proteins on the surface of the virus but are considered less accurate than laboratory PCR tests which detect genetic material in the virus.

If successful - antigen test results will be compared with PCR test also being carried out - the system could be rolled out broadly and used whenever a staffer, or visitor when such are allowed, enters the building, Amer said.

Reporting by Colm Fulton and Johan Ahlander; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Alison Williams