Sweden's coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) response, initially based largely on voluntary measures, has evoked strong reactions nationally and internationally. In this study, we describe Sweden's national policy response with regard to the general public, the community and the health care system, with a focus on how the response changed from March 2020 to June 2021. A number of factors contributed to Sweden's choice of policy response, including its existing legal framework, independent expert agencies and its decentralized, multi-level health care governance system. Challenges to the health- and elder care system during the pandemic, such as the need to increase intensive care- and testing capacity, and to ensure the safety of the elderly were addressed largely at the regional and local levels, with national authorities assuming a primarily coordinative role. Although the overall response based on voluntary compliance has persisted, the national government started to take a more prominent role in public messaging, and in enacting legally binding restrictions during subsequent waves of the pandemic. This study illustrates that not only policy responses, but also the fundamental structure of the health- and elder care system and its governance should be considered when evaluating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.