Eur J Public Health 32 (5) 799-806 [2022-10-03; online 2022-08-14]
This article investigates the impact of a non-mandatory and age-specific social distancing recommendation on isolation behaviours and disease outcomes in Sweden during the first wave of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic (March to July 2020). The policy stated that people aged 70 years or older should avoid crowded places and contact with people outside the household. We used a regression discontinuity design-in combination with self-reported isolation data from COVID Symptom Study Sweden (n = 96 053; age range: 39-79 years) and national register data (age range: 39-100+ years) on severe COVID-19 disease (hospitalization or death, n = 21 804) and confirmed cases (n = 48 984)-to estimate the effects of the policy. Our primary analyses showed a sharp drop in the weekly number of visits to crowded places (-13%) and severe COVID-19 cases (-16%) at the 70-year threshold. These results imply that the age-specific recommendations prevented approximately 1800-2700 severe COVID-19 cases, depending on model specification. It seems that the non-mandatory, age-specific recommendations helped control COVID-19 disease during the first wave of the pandemic in Sweden, as opposed to not implementing a social distancing policy aimed at older adults. Our study provides empirical data on how populations may react to non-mandatory, age-specific social distancing policies in the face of a novel virus.