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COVID-19 surveys halted in Minnesota amid racism, intimidation

By Jeremy Olson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in News & Features

MINNEAPOLIS - A door-to-door COVID-19 testing survey has been halted due to multiple incidents in greater Minnesota of residents intimidating and shouting racial and ethnic slurs at state and federal public health survey teams.

The CDC pulled its federal surveyors out of Minnesota this week following reports of verbal abuse and intimidation, including an incident in the Iowa border town of Eitzen, Minn., in which a survey team walking to a house was blocked by two cars and threatened by three men, including one who had a gun.

Frustration with the state's pandemic response "is totally understandable," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, "but that is distinctly different than taking out frustration on another human being who is trying to help and is especially galling when there is a taint of racism. There is no justification for this - the enemy is the virus and not the public health workers who are trying to help."

Surveyors had been fanning out to 180 neighborhoods this month - offering free diagnostic testing for active COVID-19 infections and blood antibody testing to identify prior infections - to understand the true prevalence of the coronavirus causing the pandemic.

Insults came at doorways, from angry people approaching the surveyors or just people walking their dogs on the other sides of the streets, said Stephanie Yendell, a state senior epidemiology supervisor. The surveyors trapped in the Eitzen incident were permitted to leave and did not file a police report about the gun-toting man or the two others who approached them.

The frequency of problems became clear last weekend when surveyors discussed their experiences, Yendell said. A Hispanic surveyor was called one slur "more in the last week than in her entire life," she said.


Most people were polite in all areas of the state, but the frequency of intimidating incidents was surprising, said Dan Huff, assistant state health commissioner. The state ended the survey rather than continuing without the CDC workers, or sending only white surveyors in largely white rural communities.

"We found that our white teams had a very different experience, a much more positive experience, but I think from our perspective it's ridiculous for us to contemplate that," he said. "We choose who is doing this survey on their professional qualifications."

While samples were collected from 400 volunteers, that is short of what was sought for assessing COVID-19's presence in Minnesota. In a sad irony, health officials said that people who drove surveyors away due to frustration over state pandemic restrictions ended up short-circuiting a study that could have hastened the end to those restrictions.

"We had hoped through the CASPER survey to have a better understanding of how COVID-19 was spreading in Minnesota and how it was affecting people," Lynfield said. "That kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response."


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