COVID-19 fact-finding leads to threats against health workers in Minnesota

Samples are tested for COVID-19.
Samples are tested for COVID-19 in March at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Health

Updated 4 p.m.

Incidents of racism and implied threats of violence have stopped the work of public health care workers on a project looking at how the coronavirus spreads.

According to leaders with the Minnesota Department of Health, the agency’s workers along with workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were met with animosity.

“What happened is that in short, the reception of these teams, getting into communities is just too often hostile,” said Stephanie Yendell, a senior epidemiology supervisor with the Health Department.

“Unfortunately, people of color on the teams were reporting being subjected to racial slurs,” she added. “We had one one Latina team member who told us that she was called this one particular epithet more times in the last week than she had in her entire life before that.”

In one case in far southeastern Minnesota near Eitzen, in Houston County, the health department reported that two CDC workers and a contract nurse were walking up to a house when they said two cars came and boxed their car in. 

“Three men got out and one of them had a holstered gun with his hand on it, and the team felt the intent was to intimidate and scare them,” Yendell said.

“The community members said that they didn't think they were who they said they were,” Yendell added.

“The CDC employees showed their badges and didn't really get a response from that, you know, they there was still this disbelief that they were who they said that they were in the community member said that they wouldn't get a response there.”

The mayor of Eitzen, Jeff Adamson, later issued a statement disputing that account.

‘Taint of racism’

The project is called CASPER, or Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response. The goal of the project is to collect data on how COVID-19 is spreading in the state.

“The goals of the study were to understand how COVID-19 is spread in Minnesota communities, understand what caused COVID-19 to spread and in those certain communities, understand how the COVID-19 transmission and infection rates differ among regions in Minnesota,” Yendell said.

If households agreed to participate, one person in the home would complete a questionnaire and any household member who was interested and agreed would get a COVID-19 test to see if they had a current infection or an antibody test to see if there was evidence of a past infection.

The CASPER project started in the state on Sept. 14 and was supposed to go through the end of the month. The project was stopped on Wednesday after these incidents, which happened in southeastern and south-central Minnesota.

Public health teams were going to visit about 1,200 randomly selected households in 180 sites around the state. Teams had only gotten to around 400 sites when the project was stopped.

The visits had started in the Twin Cities metro area, then southeastern, south-central and southwestern Minnesota. Teams had just started in the northeast region of the state.

“We had really hoped through the CASPER survey to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 is spreading in Minnesota, and how it is affecting people. And that kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response,” said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota’s state epidemiologist. 

She said the pandemic has been difficult for many people in many ways.

“We know that people are hurting and frustrated. And we totally understand that people may not like the policies that have been put in place to control the spread of this virus,” she said.

“That is understandable. But it is distinctly different to not like a policy than to take frustrations out on another human being who's trying to help. And it is especially concerning when there is a taint of racism. There really is no justification for this. The enemy is the virus and it is not the public health workers who are trying to help”

Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff said there have been other instances of pushback against state health workers.

“This is happening to our inspectors, who are inspecting restaurants and bars. We've heard incidents in communities of people lashing out to local public health department staff who live in their community,” he said. “These are people that are trying to serve their community. We are all trying to serve the people of Minnesota and it is demoralizing, it's scary and it prevents us from doing the work we can do.”

Health Department leaders said there were many Minnesotans who participated in the project and had hoped to be part of the project when the teams went into northeastern and west-central Minnesota.

‘We’re Minnesotans’

News of the threats drew a strong rebuke from the Minnesota Medical Association.

“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,” Dr. Keith Stelter, the association’s president, said in a statement, adding the group was outraged by the reports of public health workers being threatened.

Speaking to reporters later Friday, Huff said investigators have dealt with other incidents of people yelling or threatening to call police, but officials became increasingly aware that workers of color were being singled out for harassment.

“Over the past week, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams that contained people of color reported more incidents than the teams that were comprised of Caucasian people,” he said.

That anger has also been directed at Minnesota’s top public health officials. Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said she’s been the target of threatening calls and emails.

While threats happen in other states, too, Ehresmann said she found it “particularly disturbing” in Minnesota, believing residents here would behave differently. “You always think your home state is the best. It might have been happening elsewhere, but we’re Minnesotans.”