MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For the first time since March, Sweden reported no new deaths from COVID-19. That country’s controversial approach to the global pandemic has been under the microscope for months.

WCCO found a Minnesota native living there now, who has seen the pros and cons play out up close.

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During the same week Rick Nehm’s Norwegian medical device company, CardioMech, made headlines for its heart valve device developed in Fridley, the Roseville-native and father of two reflected on COVID-19 in the country he now calls home.

“Sweden is an outlier in the way that they’ve approached it,” Rick Nehm said. “The health agency is independent from the government, so the government cannot compel the health agency to do anything.”

That health agency advised Swedes in March to social distance, work from home, and not gather in crowds of more than 50 people.  No stay at home orders were issued and businesses basically stayed open.  They’ve pushed the pandemic message as a marathon, not a sprint, in a place known for its stoic people.

“When they say things like you must social distance, they social distance. When they say if you’ve got symptoms you must stay home, they stay home,” Nehm said.

Just as Nehm himself did in May when coughing, a fever and fatigue sent him to the hospital without confirmation.

“It’s the sickest I’ve ever been,” he said.

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That’s when Sweden only tested those sick enough to be hospitalized.

“The nurse told me she’s not there to diagnose COVID or to test for COVID. She was just there to assess whether you need help with the symptoms of COVID,” he said.

Still, results of Sweden’s approach are mixed.  The country reports the highest death rate relative to population size in Europe, nearly twice as high as the U.S. And more than 70% of virus deaths in Sweden have been connected to the most vulnerable inside elderly care services.

“Unfortunately, they moved a little too slow, just as they did in New York and even in Minnesota,” Nehm said.

Nehm says people are still taking precautions — not traveling and keeping up that social distance, as his sons prepare to head back to school full-time later this month.

Minnesota health officials acknowledged to WCCO that they’ve watched Sweden’s model. Commissioner Jan Malcom told us Friday they’re focused here on curbing what she calls preventable deaths, and she also worries about the long-term health consequences that we don’t yet know about from COVID-19.

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So, the state has opted not to follow what some consider the “letting the virus run its course” approach.

Liz Collin