COVID-19 investigation leads to threats against health workers in Minnesota

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Update at 4 p.m.

Incidents of racism and implicit threats of violence have disrupted the work of public health officials on a project examining the spread of the coronavirus.

According to officials from the Minnesota Department of Health, workers at the agency as well as workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were greeted with animosity.

“What has happened is that, in short, the reception of these teams, their entry into communities is too often hostile,” said Stephanie Yendell, senior epidemiological supervisor in the health department.

“Unfortunately, people of color on the teams have reported being victims of racist slurs,” she added. “We had a Latina team member who told us that she had been called this particular epithet more times in the past week than she had in her entire life before that.

In one case in far southeastern Minnesota near Eitzen, Houston County, two CDC employees and a contract nurse were on their way to a house when two cars pulled up and packed their car.

“Three men came out and one of them had a gun in its holster with his hand on it, and the team felt the intention was to intimidate and scare them,” Yendell said.

“Community members said they didn’t think they were who they claimed to be,” Yendell added.

“The CDC employees showed their badges and didn’t really get a response, you know, they were still in disbelief that they were who they said they were in the community, one member said. they wouldn’t get an answer there. . “

‘Tint 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 objectives of the study were to understand how COVID-19 spreads in communities in Minnesota, to understand what caused the spread of COVID-19 and in these certain communities, to understand how the transmission of COVID-19 and infection rates differ between areas of Minnesota, ”Yendell says.

If households agreed to participate, someone at home would complete a questionnaire and any member of the household who was interested and accepted would be tested for COVID-19 to see if they had a current infection or an antibody test to see if they were. there was evidence of a past infection.

The CASPER project kicked off in the state on September 14 and was due to end at the end of the month. The project was shut down on Wednesday after the incidents, which occurred in southeast and south-central Minnesota.

Public health teams would visit approximately 1,200 randomly selected households at 180 sites across the state. The teams had only reached around 400 sites when the project was shut down.

Tours had started in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, then in southeast, south-central and southwestern Minnesota. The teams had just started in the northeast region of the state.

“We had really hoped through the CASPER investigation to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading in Minnesota and how it affects people. And that kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response, ”said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota State Epidemiologist.

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

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

“This is understandable. But it is quite different to dislike a policy than to eliminate the frustrations of another human being who is trying to help. And this is particularly worrying when there is a trace 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 ”

Deputy Health Commissioner Dan Huff said there had been other cases of crackdown on state health workers.

“It happens to our inspectors, who inspect restaurants and bars. We have heard incidents in communities of people preying on local public health staff who live in their community, ”he said. “These are people who are trying to serve their community. We all try to serve the people of Minnesota and it’s demoralizing, it’s scary and it keeps us from doing the work we can do.

Health Department officials said many Minnesotans were involved in the project and hoped to be a part of the project when the teams traveled to northeast and west-central Minnesota.

‘We are Minnesotans’

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

“We cannot overestimate the severity of this virus and the people of Minnesota must recognize that the target of our frustration and outrage must be the virus, not public health experts, clinicians and others who work for it. ‘stop,’ said Dr Keith Stelter, president of the association. said in a statement, adding that the group was outraged by reports that public health officials had been threatened.

Speaking to reporters later on Friday, Huff said investigators had dealt with other incidents of people shouting or threatening to call the police, but officials have come to realize that workers of color are falling victim to bullying.

“Over the past week, a pattern has emerged where CASPER teams that included people of color reported more incidents than teams made up of Caucasians,” he said.

This anger has also been directed against key public health officials in Minnesota. Kris Ehresmann, the state’s director of infectious diseases, said she had been the target of threatening calls and emails.

While threats are also occurring in other states, Ehresmann said she finds it “particularly disturbing” in Minnesota, believing residents here would behave differently. “You still think your home country is the best. It may have happened elsewhere, but we are Minnesota.

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