Minnesota racism halts COVID-19 survey

Survey results could have helped fight the disease

The racist insults, harassment and mistreatment recently of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) members taking surveys in Northern, Central and Southern Minnesota about COVID-19 suggest that some White Minnesotans are less fond of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) than they are of the deadly pandemic.

According to the CDC, they had been working with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) since Sept. 14 to conduct a voluntary door-to-door survey across 180 neighborhoods to better understand how the virus was spreading, particularly among people with no known symptoms. The CDC decided to discontinue the surveyors’ work in Minnesota after reports of mistreatment and harassment of survey takers of color.

One Latina surveyor reported being called a certain racist slur more times during a week of conducting surveys than she had heard in her lifetime. According to officials, insults came from open doorways, from angry people approaching the surveyors, or just from people walking their dogs on the other side of the street.

The survey, called CASPER for Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, is a door-to-door survey that collects demographically representative responses in communities to determine needs following disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes. Minnesota health officials say the survey was voluntary and families could say no if they did not want to participate.

“Minnesota can do better by the courageous workers of the CDC who are doing their best to gather information to better help us fight the threat of COVID-19, which has already cost us over 200,000 lives,” said Reuben Moore, CEO of Minnesota Community Care.

 “The cowardly actors who committed these terroristic actions should be condemned and also held accountable. We are one, and an attack like this against one American is an attack against all of America,” said Moore.

The Minnesota Health Department reported that in one incident, in the southern Minnesota town of Eitzen, survey takers were blocked by two cars and confronted by three men. According to one member of the CDC team they were called racist names, and one of the people confronting them had his hand on the holster of his gun. The group said they felt intimidated.

According Minnesota Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff, health officials were “deeply disappointed” to hear about the incidents that led to the CDC’s decision to pull the teams. He said survey teams with People of Color have been subjected to racial slurs.

The MDH issued a statement about the situation saying, “We were deeply disappointed to hear of incidents across the state which led to the CDC’s decision to withdraw their teams from the CASPER project.

“The enemy is the virus, not each other.”

“Through the CASPER survey, we had hoped to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading in Minnesota and how it is affecting people. That kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response.

“However, a series of troubling incidents across Minnesota caused the CDC to pull its teams and halt the project. CASPER teams with people of color on them have been subjected to racial slurs. 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.

“Many of the individual incidents could perhaps have been considered misunderstandings, but over the past week, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams that contained 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 the entire team.

“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. And no matter how frustrated someone may be, we must draw a clear line against expressions of racism against workers who are people of color.”

Huff added, “We know most people understand this, and we hope this episode gives us all a chance to take a pause and consider how we treat each other during this stressful time. The enemy is the virus, not each other.”

The Minnesota Medical Association President Keith Stelter, MD also issued a statement: “We are outraged over reports of door-to-door testers in greater Minnesota being met with intimidating racial and ethnic slurs to the point the CDC has decided to withdraw staff in the state and ended its efforts to better understand the scope and impact of this virus.

“In addition, we are extremely concerned to hear that Minnesota has been downgraded to ‘uncontrolled spread’ rating by the COVID Exit Strategy website, an expert-led, non-partisan resource. We cannot overstate the severity of this virus, and Minnesotans must recognize that the target of our frustration and outrage must be the virus, not the public health experts, clinicians and others working to stop it. We urge all Minnesotans to continue to practice good health.”

The surveys are being conducted in other states including Georgia and Hawaii, but no problems of the kinds experienced in Minnesota have been reported.

On Friday, Sept. 25 the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,191 new COVID cases in Minnesota, which is the second highest day ever on the current volume of testing we have right now.

Experts are saying we are currently in a fall surge. Said one expert quoted in other news sources, “I’m terribly afraid that on New Year’s Eve of 2020, looking into 2021, we’re still going to be a long ways from having this behind us.”