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Racial slurs, threats lead Minnesota to pull COVID field workers
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Racial slurs, threats lead Minnesota to pull COVID field workers

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Racial slurs and threats in Houston County and southern Minnesota have forced the Minnesota Department of Health to halt voluntary in-person surveys designed to gauge the community impact of COVID-19, state officials told the Winona Daily News on Friday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control supplied a dozen field workers — including some of color — to conduct statewide surveys of 1,200 households Sept. 14-30.

But in Eitzen on Sept 15, three survey workers — two of them of color — pulled up to a house whose residents had volunteered to take part in the survey.

Two vehicles pulled up and blocked the vehicle used by the survey workers, state health officials say, and three men got out and confronted them. One of the men had his hand on a holstered weapon before racial slurs were spewed at the survey workers.

The workers showed identification, but because of the threats, decided to leave and report the incident — one of several racially tinged incidents in southern Minnesota that caused anxiety among survey workers, MDH project coordinator Stephanie Yendell said.

In another part of the state, a Latina survey worker was subjected to racial slurs, among other incidents.

Police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the state were notified of the threats, and the Minnesota Department of Public Health eventually decided to halt the surveys.

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Data from the surveys was intended to help health officials better understand the disease and its spread, and how best to alert residents to healthy practices.

Before the survey was halted, residents in 400 to 500 households were surveyed and tested, and the data will be analyzed, state health officials said.

Money for the project — known as Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, or CASPER survey — came to MDH from COVID relief funds and provided an evidence-based tool to assess community need,

“It really helped us improve multiple aspects of our response,” state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said.

Because of COVID-19 response, MDH did not have enough staff to supply field workers to conduct the surveys without assistance from the CDC.

“We know people are hurting and frustrated … but this is distinctly different,” Lynfield said. “There was a taint of racism — and no justification. The enemy is the virus, not (the public health department).”

The CASPER survey is being conducted in several other states, MDH officials said.

Such needs surveys have been used to collect household information during public health emergencies such as hurricanes, oil spills and the Zika virus outbreak.

It was not immediately clear whether survey workers in other states have faced racial slurs and threats.

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