ROCHESTER, Minn. — Calling the news "deeply disturbing" and "unprecedented," state health officials reported Friday, Sept. 25, that the Centers for Disease Control had expelled the state from CASPER, an invaluable COVID-19 data-gathering project.

The CDC did so citing a pattern of racists taunts and intimidation directed by Minnesotans at CDC workers of color.

The state's participation in the so-called CASPER study was considered something of a coup when it was announced just a few weeks ago. Minnesota's inclusion in the two-week undertaking placed it among just a handful of states selected for a best-practices survey of the prevalence of COVID-19 in their state.

CASPER data held the potential of providing the state with an edge against other states in calculating where and how the disease is being transmitted, how many Minnesotans have had the coronavirus, as well as better messaging in curbing the spread.

Instead, the state's participation is now ended because "some CDC staff, especially those of color, reported an increasing feeling of anxiety with the field work," according to Deputy Commissioner of Health Dan Huff on an afternoon press call.

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The study involved sending teams of clearly-identified CDC workers out to visit roughly 1,200 representative, randomly selected homes throughout the state, and was widely reported on various media. The teams travelled in clearly identified CDC vehicles, did not call ahead, and knocked on doors to ask if the household would like to participate in a brief study.

Huff described an incident in which three men in Eitzen, near the southern border of the state, blocked in the car of the CDC team, then approached while taunting the team.

"Racial epithets were used by the men towards the CDC staff," Huff said, "and one of the men held his hand on a holstered gun."

Huff described "several other incidents where a dog walker or another neighbor questioned the team, or yelled at them and threatened to call the police" In the incidents, federal health workers noted a pattern whereby "people of color on CASPER teams were reporting more incidents than the teams of Caucasian people."

"Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents had on team members," Huff said, "CDC decided to demobilize the entire team."

Those who agreed to take part in the study could get a free on-site COVID-19 test and finger prick antibody test. They would also be asked a variety of questions. The study was anonymous and voluntary, although if a person tested positive they would be notified along with the department of health as required by law.

Health officials described the CDC decision with a palpable sense of regret and disappointment.

"I think what's particularly disturbing is you always think your home state is the best, and that we were better than that," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease for the state. "We expected our fellow citizens would behave differently, and I think that is particularly devastating to staff."

State officials said public health is never easy, but that COVID-19 has frequently brought out the worst in the state. Ehresmann said she fields hostile calls and emails, while Huff described needing to rotate people off the COVID-19 hotline for their emotional health. "When those are full of vitriol," he said, "it's emotionally taxing."

"I know that when we are at our best we come together to tackle problems collectively and constructively," Huff said. "But we are not at our best right now. This is disappointing on multiple levels . . . the enemy is the virus, not each other"

In a statement, Dr. Keith Stelter, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, said the organization is "outraged over reports of door-to-door testers in greater Minnesota being met with intimidating racial and ethnic slurs.

"In addition, we are extremely concerned to hear that Minnesota has been downgraded to 'uncontrolled spread' rating by the COVID Exit Strategy website, an expert-led, nonpartisan resource. 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."

By the numbers

The state reported an additional 1,191 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the statewide total to 94,189. There were six deaths reported on Friday as well, among residents of Anoka, Cass, Freeborn, and Renville counties, and two residents of Hennepin County.

The new cases come on 28,230 tests.

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  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
  • COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.