by CHRIS ROGERS
Surveys aimed at helping Minnesota health officials better understand and respond to the pandemic were called off after repeated incidents of racist aggression against surveyors in southeastern and southern Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) leaders said today. Most notably, surveyors were reportedly accosted by armed individuals who lobbed racist slurs; MDH officials revealed today that incident happened in Eitzen, Minn., a small town in Houston County an hour south of Winona. Eitzen Mayor Jeffrey Adamson stated a city official was one of those individuals and there were no weapons present nor slurs used. After other surveyors of color reported being followed by people yelling racist epithets and similar incidents in seven different counties across Southeast and Southern Minnesota, organizers canceled the entire statewide survey for the safety of their staff.
The study — called a CASPER survey and based on surveys used to assess natural disasters — sent teams of nurses and interviewers door-to-door to randomly selected households. If participants consented, surveyors asked them questions about mask-wearing and other precautions and offered free COVID-19 diagnostic tests and antibody tests. “We had hoped through the CASPER survey to really get a better understanding of how COVID-19 is spreading through Minnesota and how it is affecting people in Minnesota,” MDH State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said. “And that kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response. “Other states are also conducting COVID-19 CASPER studies.
MDH turned to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for aid. “We said, ‘We really need to do this study, but we don’t have the manpower. Can you help?’” Lynfield explained. The CDC answered that call and sent a team of 12 staff members to assist Minnesota in conducting the surveys. Unfortunately, some Minnesotans were less than hospitable, MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff and MDH CASPER lead Stephanie Yendell said.
“The reception that these teams were getting were too often hostile,” Yendell said in an interview. Several people of color on the teams reported multiple incidents of receiving racist insults. “One member reported being called a racial epithet more times than she had ever heard in her life,” Yendell stated. “Other people were videotaping the teams, and in a very, sort of aggressive manner, saying, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ and calling police,” she continued. “Any individual incident could have been a misunderstanding, but over the past weeks, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams with people of color reported having more incidents than teams with white people,” she added.
Yendell described the Eitzen incident in greater detail: “Two CDC employees and a contractor were walking up to house when two cars pulled up and boxed in the team’s car. Two men got out. One had a holstered gun with his hand on it.” Yendell said the men reportedly directed racial slurs at the team members. The men didn’t believe the surveyors were who they said they were, even after the survey team produced identification badges, she relayed. Eventually, the surveyors were able to leave safely.
In a statement, the Eitzen mayor wrote that a concerned citizen contacted a city official about three people going door to door, claiming to be conducting a COVID-19 study. Mayor Adamson stated that a city official and two citizens parked on either side of the surveyors car, but didn't block it. The official asked for the surveyors' indentification, then called the Houston County Sheriff's Office, asking if the study was legitimate. None of the individuals were armed, Adamson wrote, adding, "We can only assume that the team misinterpreted a large fire department communication radio in a holster for a firearm." He stated no one uttered no racial slurs or threats.
The repeated smaller incidents, combined with this situation in Eitzen, led surveyors to feel increasing anxiety and concern for their safety, Yendell reported. “Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents were having on team members, the CDC decided to demobilize the entire team,” Yendell said, saying she supported the CDC officials’ decision and shared their concern for the staff members’ safety.
“We know people are hurting and frustrated, and we understand people may not like the policies in place to stop the spread of the virus,” Lynfield said. “That is totally understandable, but that is completely different than taking out those frustrations on another human being who is attempting to help. And it’s especially concerning when there is a tinge of racism.” Lynfield called that “unacceptable,” adding, “People need to understand that the enemy is the virus and not public health workers who are trying to help.”
The incidents surveyors reported echo the experiences some Black Winonans and immigrants have described sometimes happening to them: people yelling bigoted slurs at them and/or following them.
While many Minnesotans were happy to participate in the study and grateful for survey teams’ work, unfortunately, without safe conditions and CDC staff power, the entire CASPER study was called off, MDH officials said. The MDH still plans to make use of the information that was collected, but the work stopped short of its goal. The surveys began on September 14 and were slated to continue through the end of the month. Instead, surveyors left the state on September 24, Lynfield said. Western Minnesota would have been the next stop.
“It’s devastating to have the study end in this manner and disappointing to have this kind of thing happening in our state,” Yendell said. Ultimately, she stated, the safety and well-being of the CDC staff members was paramount.
MDH officials did not have information on the exact locations of the other incidents, but said they were widespread. Huff said the MDH reported the Eitzen incident to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS), but that the MDH and DPS concluded it likely was not a crime. Minnesota law allows the open carrying of firearms by permit. Huff said DPS reported the incident to local law enforcement, but the survey team members did not to file a police report. “I think the individuals are still processing the incident, it was quite a traumatic incident,” he stated.
“Unfortunately, I’m just kind of learning about this now,” Houston County Sheriff Mark Inglett said on Friday. “Obviously, the allegations are very concerning to us, but without having direct contact to the alleged victims here, it’s difficult to move forward with anything.” Asked whether any of the described behavior would constitute a crime, he responded, “It’s hard to comment on it at this time because I don’t know any of the facts. The allegations of what they said occurred potentially could, but without knowing the facts there [it’s hard to say]. Everyone is concerned about the armed portion of this confrontation, but if it was a holstered firearm and that person had a permit to carry, that portion alone wouldn’t constitute a crime.”