Mayor of Minnesota city disputes MDH reports of health workers being threatened

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

The mayor of a southern Minnesota city is pushing back on state health department claims that a COVID-19 survey team was threatened there earlier this month.

"Personally, I think they owe the city of Eitzen and its citizens an apology," Mayor Jeff Adamson told MPR News on Saturday, speaking about the Minnesota Department of Health.

He disputed MDH's account of the incident and said city leaders were never contacted about survey teams working in the community.

"It would have been very simple to say 'Hey, we're going to come down on the 15th, asking a few questions.' And we could have very easily notified everybody in town, and everybody would have known about it and I'm sure they would have been well-received," Adamson said.

State health officials on Friday reported cases of health workers being subjected to hostility in several Minnesota communities, as the teams surveyed households to collect data on how COVID-19 is spreading. The hostility — including reports of racist slurs — was so great, state officials said, that they were forced to end the survey early.

They specifically cited the Sept. 15 incident in Eitzen, a city of about 250 people in southeastern Minnesota along the Iowa border, saying a survey team reported their car was blocked in and they were confronted by several people — one of them allegedly armed.

But Adamson said that's not an accurate account. He said a city official and two other residents responded to concerns about people going door-to-door in an unmarked car with California plates.

"Two vehicles driven by the city official and residents were parked on either side of the COVID-19 team's vehicle, but it was never blocked," Adamson wrote in a city statement posted to Facebook on Friday night. They contacted the Houston County Sheriff's Office, which confirmed the legitimacy of the survey.

"After properly identifying the team, they were left to continue conducting their research within the city," Adamson said. He said no one was armed, and suggested the team may have mistaken a holstered fire department communications radio for a firearm.

"In a small town where everyone knows everyone, a group of unfamiliar people with out-of-state plates is unusual, and to some residents is a cause for concern," Adamson wrote. "This situation was handled professionally, courteously and unbiased with no racial slurs, threats or inappropriate comments made."

A message sent to MDH’s communications staff on Saturday was not immediately returned.

The Houston County Sheriff's Office reported Friday that it "cannot confirm or deny the allegations. Unfortunately, we have little additional information at this point" beyond what was reported publicly by the state health department.

The sheriff's office said it was seeking additional information from the health department. It said the survey team had not contacted the sheriff's office after the Sept. 15 incident.

The survey teams were part of a project called CASPER, or Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response.

“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,” Stephanie Yendell, a senior epidemiology supervisor with the Health Department, told MPR News earlier in the week.

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.

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.