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COVID-19 surveys halted in Minnesota amid racism, intimidation

By Jeremy Olson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in News & Features

CASPER stands for Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, a door-to-door survey that collects demographically representative responses in communities to determine needs following disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes.

Since Minnesota's first positive infection in March, the state has reported nearly 2,000 COVID-19 deaths and 94,000 infections. Federal health officials have estimated that every one known case could represent 10 unknown people who had mild or no symptoms but carried and spread the virus.

The monthlong survey was the largest attempt in Minnesota to assess that level of mystery spread, mostly through seroprevalence testing of blood to see if people had antibodies indicating an immune system response to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The forced end to the study is an amalgam of 2020's overriding tensions - the anger over prolonged business restrictions to limit COVID-19 and the racial tensions following police killings of Black people that resulted in protests and riots, and some predominantly white counterprotests.

State health leaders said it was disappointing for Minnesota and that CASPER surveys have been completed this year in Georgia and Hawaii and are ongoing in other states. The Hawaii study assessed joblessness amid the pandemic.

In Minnesota, survey teams included at least one person asking questions and a nurse obtaining lab samples from volunteers. In addition to 12 CDC workers, the state had six workers going door to door along with 22 hired nurses and three local public health workers.


State health officials had expected some resistance but in the form of people declining testing. Incidents occurred mostly in central and southern Minnesota, rural areas where there has been pent-up resentment over the spring statewide shutdown, the indoor mask mandate and the bar and restaurant restrictions. The economic losses of such measures were seen as overkill in small towns where virus transmission has been less prevalent.

A CDC spokesperson declined to comment.

Compared to others, this CASPER survey had heightened potential for controversy, because opponents of Minnesota's COVID-19 response have questioned whether broad testing is inflating infection numbers and exaggerating the scope of the pandemic.

Some people with respiratory symptoms have refused testing for fear that a positive result would force them and their families into quarantine, or push local schools to cancel in-person classes and events.

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