At the beginning of February, Denmark became the first major country to lift the last of its COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declare its part in the pandemic over.
Around the world, and especially in the United States, Denmark’s “liberation” from indoor mask mandates, vaccine passports and nightclub closures was heralded as a watershed moment — the shape of things to come. Democratic governors across the U.S. started rescinding their own mask rules a few days later.
“This marks the transition to a new era for all of us, because Denmark will once again be an open society, completely open,” said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. “We dare to believe that we are now through the critical phase.”
Since then, however, Denmark has continued to record more COVID-19 cases per capita than nearly anywhere else in the world, and both COVID hospitalizations and deaths have shot up by about a third.
“Not looking good in Denmark,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Translational Institute, tweeted Sunday, sharing several charts that terminated in near-vertical upward lines. “Deaths are now 67% of peak, with a steep ascent.”
“The world is looking to Denmark as a guide to removing all restrictions,” Topol added in a subsequent tweet, “and it seems that we’ve seen this movie before.” He then attached a screenshot of a news story headlined “Denmark lifts all coronavirus restrictions and celebrates ‘a whole new era’” — from Sept. 10, 2021.
Topol’s argument was clear: By ending mitigation measures prematurely, Denmark has brought a resurgence of infection, hospitalization and death upon itself — and anyone who follows in the country’s footsteps risks doing the same.
But is that the right way to read the numbers? In response to Topol’s tweet — and others like it — Danish experts took to Twitter to object.
“Those data do not capture the epidemic situation in Denmark adequately,” tweeted political scientist Michael Bang Petersen, who advises the Danish government and leads the country’s largest study of pandemic behavior.
“Hospital burden in regards to COVID-19 is still low compared to former waves, and mortality is low,” Søren Neermark, an official at the Danish Health Authority, went on to explain.
“Test-positive admitted in Denmark” — that is, the number of people who are hospitalized with COVID but not necessarily because of it — “reflects high incidence in society, but is not the best current indicator for the burden of COVID-19.”
At first, this might sound like an academic debate about Scandinavian statistics. But it’s actually something much deeper and more significant. Like Denmark before it, the United States is also hurtling toward its own post-Omicron tipping point — the moment that U.S. society, broadly speaking, decides that COVID risks have become more tolerable than COVID rules.