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Denmark Says Move Over Sweden as Government Lifts All COVID Restrictions—Because of High Vaccination Rate?

Denmark today is free of COVID restrictions after government officials said the virus is no longer a ‘critical threat to society.’ But did the Danes really hit “a magic” vaccine number?

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A recent photo of a jam-packed stadium reportedly taken in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, drew attention recently on social media.

“This weekend in Copenhagen,” Silicon Valley technologist Aaron Ginn wrote. “No masks, no testing, no vaxx passport.”

The photo went viral a day after the New York Times reported Denmark had lifted its remaining coronavirus restrictions, “effectively declaring that the virus was no longer a ‘critical threat to society’ and allowing the country to get back to a semblance of prepandemic normal”—though face coverings are still required in airports.

People naturally responded differently to the photo. Some reacted positively.

“I think that’s called freedom…not like Australia,” one reader responded.

Some said the Danes would pay for their recklessness.

“They’ll find out the hard way, like Singapore,” one person tweeted.

The vast majority of people, however, said Denmark had earned their freedoms back because they had done the hard work of getting their population vaccinated, unlike the United States.

“Yea. [The Danes] vaccinated like rational human beings,” one reader Tweeted.

“The country is the second most vaccinated in the world,” another claimed.

Denmark’s Actual Vaccination Rate

It’s true that when Denmark’s government announced last month it would not be renewing its COVD restrictions, public officials cited its high vaccination rate as a reason.

This was echoed by Danish health officials last week when the last of Denmark’s COVID restrictions were lifted, making it the freest country in Europe (as far as COVID restrictions), well ahead of Sweden, which has avoided a full-scale lockdown throughout the pandemic.

“This can only be done because we have come a long way with the vaccination rollout, have a strong epidemic control, and because the entire Danish population has made an enormous effort to get here,” Magnus Heunicke, Denmark’s health minister, said on Friday.

So what is Denmark’s vaccination rate, and is it truly an outlier?

First, Denmark does not have the second highest vaccination rate in the world (as the reader claimed above).

Second, Denmark’s vaccination is not “over 90 percent” as many readers claimed. In fact, it’s not even over 80 percent, as media outlets such as NBC News, NPR, and Yahoo News reported. The actual vaccination rate in Denmark was 73 percent as of this weekend.

“As of Saturday, about 76 percent of the country’s population had received one dose of a vaccine, and 73 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford,” the New York Times reports.

Data from Reuters, which tracks rates in real time, also puts Denmark’s vaccination rate at about 74.5 percent.

That is not too shabby—in fact, it’s pretty good—but it’s hardly second best in the world. In fact, Denmark’s vaccination rate is not even second best in Europe, even though the Danish government briefly required a vaccine passport to enter certain establishments. Denmark’s vaccination rate actually trails both Portugal and Spain, as well as several other countries.

That’s not all, however. Despite what many think, the percentage of Danes who are at least partially vaccinated is actually lower than some US states—such as Vermont (76.9 percent) and Massachusetts (76.4 percent)—according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

While there is a perception that Americans are stubbornly refusing to get vaxxed, data show this is not true. The percentage of Americans who are at least partially vaccinated stands at 63 percent to Europe’s 66 percent—a difference of just 3 percent.

‘We Really Don’t Know What the Real Number Is’

The idea that Denmark can safely open now because it achieved some vaccine milestone that eludes the rest of the world is simply not true. Spain and Portugal and some US states have COVID restrictions in place even though they have vaccination rates higher than Denmark.

People believe Denmark has an exceptional vaccination rate because it would help explain why Danes can pack stadiums and live life normally without deadly healthy consequences. But the reality is they can’t, at least not any more than anyone else.

Both cases and deaths still exist in Denmark, though in relatively small numbers. One or two people have been dying each day, on average, since May, and daily new cases have bobbed around one thousand (with an exception in June, which saw a notable dip). In fact, Denmark is averaging more new daily cases per capita than Australia, which is currently enforcing one of the most authoritarian lockdowns in the world (even though mortality in Australia remains low and 56 percent of Australians are at least partially vaccinated).

While it’s inviting to believe that Denmark hit the magic vaccine number and can now safely open, the reality is that Denmark is choosing to live with COVID. After all, Dr. Anthony Fauci has admitted there is no magic vaccine number.

“In the pandemic’s early days, Dr. Fauci tended to cite the same 60 to 70 percent estimate that most experts did,” the New York Times observed. Later, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in TV interviews. This changed to “75, 80, 85 percent” and “75 to 80-plus percent,” the Times noted.

“We need to have some humility here,” Fauci said in an interview last Christmas. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”

The Problems With Vaccine Targets

Vaccines can help protect individuals from severe COVID symptoms, which can lead to hospitalization and death. They can also help populations reach herd immunity.

There are several big problems with vaccine targets, however. The first is that vaccine targets alone ignore natural immunity. The CDC’s own estimates suggest that SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than 100 million Americans, and these numbers combined with vaccinations suggest the US is already nearing immunity.

A better approach is to focus on populations who are most at risk from COVID—instead of all people over the age of 12 or 17—and are not yet vaccinated and have not been infected, many experts say.

“People who have had COVID already have excellent immunity. The key is to ensure high vaccination rates among people above 50 that have not yet had COVID,” Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff told me in an email. “That is the number to look at.”

This, as it happens, is precisely what Denmark achieved.

“96% of everyone above 50 are fully vaccinated,” Michael Bang Petersen, a scientist who advised Denmark and led the country’s largest behavioral COVID-19 project.

The vast majority of Americans over the age of 50 also are fully vaccinated, though none of the age groups rival Denmark’s 96 percent rate.

Second, national vaccine targets put some populations at the mercy of others. It does not follow that Maine, where 73 percent of people are at least partially vaccinated, should have to remain under COVID restrictions because Mississippi, Louisiana, and other parts of the country a thousand or more miles away have lower vaccination rates, which decrease the national rate.

This would be akin to saying Denmark shouldn’t lift restrictions because some other parts of Europe have far lower vaccination numbers—even though Denmark is overwhelmingly vaccinated.

A third problem with vaccine targets is that they play into the notion that freedoms must be “won back” by collectively complying with the wishes of public health officials. This idea isn’t just wrong, but deeply dangerous.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have violated civil liberties while promising these “temporary sacrifices” would be over once a particular goal was achieved. But the goal posts were always moving. We saw it with “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” President Biden’s call for “100 days of masks,” and Dr. Fauci’s previously mentioned floating vaccine target, which he openly admitted he’d adjust based on public polling.

“When newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take [the vaccine], I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85,” Fauci told the Times in December.

Call this what you will, but it’s not science. And listening to men and women like Dr. Fauci is precisely how countries have been swept up into public health authoritarianism that has been ineffective at controlling the coronavirus but resulted in widespread damage to the economy and public health (both mental and physical).

Freedom Is Not ‘Earned Back’

Denmark’s decision to abandon harmful COVID restrictions should be celebrated, but it’s important to understand that Danes did not “earn their freedom back” because they hit a magic vaccine number.

Denmark’s vaccination rate is good, but it is well below the target set by Dr. Fauci (or at least some of his many targets). Moreover, no magic vaccine number for herd immunity exists—especially if it excludes natural immunity, which offers robust protection from COVID-19.

Denmark today is free of COVID restrictions—though not COVID-19—because Danish leaders arrived at the prudent and sensible conclusion that Danes must live with the coronavirus, which cannot be defeated or extinguished through central planning.

It’s high time US public health officials acknowledged the same truth.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of at the Foundation for Economic Education.