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COVID-19 survey teams withdraw from MN after encountering racism, intimidation

The survey was aimed at learning more about COVID-19's spread in Minnesota.
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A survey that was intended to help the state health department better understand the the spread of the coronavirus in Minnesota communities has been halted due to federal workers being subjected to racism and intimidation. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) were working in tandem to carry out the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) survey through Sept. 30, but the process was suddenly stopped this week following an increasing number of alleged incidents. 

Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of the MDH, expressed disappointment in the CDC's decision to withdraw their teams from the project adding that there were a "series of troubling incidents across Minnesota, including CASPER teams with people of color being targeted by racial slurs and epithets."

One such incident allegedly happened Sept. 15 in the small town of Eitzen, which is located at the Minnesota-Iowa border in Houston County. There, Huff said "a team was surrounded by three men who refused to accept their identification as public health workers. One of the men was armed and the workers felt that the intention of the men was to intimidate them, racial epithets were used by the men."

"There were several other incidents where a dog walker or other neighbor questioned the teams and/or yelled at them and threatened to call the police. Other incidents included team members being followed and videotaped," Huff continued. 

A week ago, an MDH spokesperson said a team of CASPER workers had been "confronted by armed individuals," at an unidentified location, though the MDH suspected that the encounter was the result of a misunderstanding.

"Many of the individual incidents could perhaps have been considered misunderstandings, but over the past week, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams that included people of color were reporting more incidents than teams that did not include people of color. Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents had on team members, CDC decided to demobilize their field staff," Huff said Friday. 

The goal of the CASPER project was to learn more about COVID-19, including how it spreads, infection rates and identify the percentage of asymptomatic people in Minnesota. It also offered an opportunity for Minnesotans in the 180 communities being surveyed to receive a free diagnostic or antibody test. 

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Locations of other incidences of alleged racism and intimidation were not disclosed. 

"We know people are hurting and frustrated. We also know some people disagree with various government policies and approaches, but there is a difference between disagreeing with a policy and taking out frustrations on a public health worker who is trying to do their job and help the community as best they can," Huff continued. 

"And no matter how frustrated someone may be, we must draw a clear line at expressions of racism against and intimidation of workers who are happen to be people of color. The Minnesota Department of Health stands against racism in its many forms, whether that be individual acts or structural racism, a root cause of health inequities."

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