EITZEN, Minn. (FOX 9) - The mayor of Eitzen, Minnesota, wrote a letter to the city after health department officials reported alleged verbal abuse and intimidation directed at COVID-19 survey crews earlier this month.
Mayor Jeff Adamson wrote that the city is "shocked by the accusations made in news reports released today, and saddened to hear our city is being slandered."
Friday, health officials announced the CDC pulled its COVID-19 door-to-door survey teams from Minnesota following multiple incidents of alleged verbal abuse and intimidation. The surveys were part of the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response or CASPER project, which was created to better understand the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota. However, the project is now at a standstill after CASPER teams, which had people of color on them, were met with racial slurs.
In a statement, MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff described an incident where crewmembers felt intimidated. On Sept. 15 in rural Eitzen, which is near the Iowa border, three men allegedly surrounded a CASPER team and refused to accept their identification as public health workers. The men reportedly used racial epithets and one of the men was armed. According to the Houston County Sheriff, the surveyors did not file a report following the incident.
"Many of the individual incidents could perhaps have been considered misunderstandings, but over the past week, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams that included people of color were reporting more incidents than teams that did not include people of color," read a statement in part from MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff. "Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents had on team members, CDC decided to demobilize their field staff."
In the letter, Mayor Adamson wrote that on September 15, "a concerned citizen notified a city official of three people driving an unmarked vehicle with California state license plates. The team of people were going door to door claiming to be conducting a covid-19 survey and tests. The city was not notified prior to the team’s arrival, and we felt there was a need to follow up on the situation. A city official and two other residents met the covid-19 team to verify their identification. 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. The city official asked the Covid-19 team for identification, which was presented. Out of an abundance of caution, the Houston County Sheriff’s Department was also contacted to verify the team’s presence in the city. The Sheriff’s department did state that the vehicle was supposed to be marked, but they confirmed the team was part of the Department of Health. After properly identifying the team, they were left to continue conducting their research within the city. We would like to make it clear there was never a gun or any weapon present and no threats or aggressive behavior occurred during the interaction between the city members and the covid-19 team. We can only assume that the team misinterpreted a large fire department communication radio in a holster for a firearm."
He went on to write that, "in a very small town where everyone knows everyone, a group of unfamiliar people with out of state plates is unusual, and to some residents is cause for concern. This situation was handled professionally, courteously, and unbiased with no racial slurs, threats or inappropriate comments made. We have and will continue to be open and honest with law enforcement agencies investigating this situation. The only contact made to law enforcement during the alleged confrontation was made by the city official while the covid-19 team was present."
Statement from Minnesota Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff:
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.
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. On September 15, 2020 in the town of Eitzen, in Houston County, a team was surrounded by three men who refused to accept their identification as public health workers. One of the men was armed and the workers felt that the intention of the men was to intimidate them, racial epithets were used by the men. 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. Other incidents included team members being followed and videotaped.
Many of the individual incidents could perhaps have been considered misunderstandings, but over the past week, a pattern emerged where the CASPER teams that included 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 their field staff.
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 at expressions of racism against and intimidation of workers who are happen to be people of color. The Minnesota Department of Health stands against racism in its many forms, whether that be individual acts or structural racism, a root cause of health inequities.
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.
Statement from Houston County Sheriff's Office:
It has come to our attention that there are news reports of an incident that occurred last week in Eitzen regarding a confrontation with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) surveyors that were conducting COVID 19 surveys and volunteer testing.
The Houston County Sheriff’s Office is now aware that allegations have been made, but at this point cannot confirm or deny the allegations. Unfortunately, we have little additional information at this point other than what has been reported by the news media apparently through MDH. We have requested additional information from MDH but have not yet received the requested information.
While we have spoken with MDH personnel, the alleged victims have not contacted our office and at this point we are aware of their identities and have not spoken with them directly.
Obviously the allegations are concerning and wish the surveyors would have immediately reported the incident to law enforcement.