Swedish COVID-19 cases cross 500,000 mark as hospitals near limit

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continues in Stockholm

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden has registered 17,395 new coronavirus cases since Friday, taking the total above 500,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, as hospitals struggled to cope with a rampant second wave of the virus, Health Agency statistics showed on Tuesday.

The statistics showed that Dec. 17 was the deadliest day since the start of the pandemic with 116 deaths, surpassing a previous peak of 115 daily deaths set in April.

More people are being treated for COVID-19 at hospitals in Sweden now than at any time during the pandemic. While Sweden still has around 20% spare capacity at intensive care units, there are worries the spread will accelerate again as people return to work and schools after the holidays.

"It's quite obvious that the healthcare system is as strained now (as during the spring)," Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the architect of an unorthodox pandemic strategy that has eschewed lockdowns, told a news conference.

"We are near the limit for what the healthcare system can handle."

The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 234 new deaths since Friday, taking the total to 9,667. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and weeks with many from the Christmas period being registered with a significant delay.

The second wave has also affected how Swedes perceive authorities' handling of the crisis. In December 47% said they had relatively high or high confidence in the government's and agencies' actions, down from 52% in the previous month.

Sweden's death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours but lower than several European countries that opted for lockdowns.

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; editing by Niklas Pollard)