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Coronavirus survey in Minnesota cancelled after workers faced harassment, racism

"Teams that included people of color were reporting more incidents" in which they faced verbal abuse and intimidation while conducting the survey, a state official said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pulled federal coronavirus surveyors out of Minnesota this week after they experienced verbal abuse, intimidation and racism, according to the state's Department of Health.

The CDC had been working with the Minnesota Department of Health since Sept. 14 to conduct a voluntary door-to-door survey across 180 neighborhoods to better understand how the virus was spreading, particularly among people with no known symptoms.

The Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) survey teams were also offering free testing for the virus and for antibodies.

But some Minnesota residents greeted the public health workers with racial and ethnic slurs, Dan Huff, an assistant health commissioner in the state, told NBC News in a statement.

Huff recalled a specific incident on Sept. 15 in Eitzen, a town of 250 people along the Iowa border, when one survey 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 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," Eitzen Mayor Jeffrey Adamson told KARE, NBC's affiliate in Minneapolis, adding that the one of the three men involved in the encounter with the public health workers was a city official.

"This situation was handled professionally, courteously, and unbiased with no racial slurs, threats or inappropriate comments made," said Adamson. "The City of Eitzen in no way supports racism or violence."

Houston County Sheriff Mark Inglett told KARE he is not investigating the incident as no complaints were filed.

But Minnesota health officials said the incident in Eitzen was not an isolated one.

According to Huff, there were several other instances in which residents yelled at the public health workers and threatened to call the police. Other incidents included team members' being followed and videotaped. Most incidents occurred in central and southern Minnesota — in rural areas where there has been more resentment over coronavirus restrictions, The Associated Press reported.

"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," said Huff.

Stephanie Yendell, who supervised Minnesota’s role in the survey, said one of their Latina team members had "been called a particular epithet more times in the last week than in her entire life,” the AP reported.

Following the "series of troubling incidents across Minnesota" and "the impact the incidents had on team members", the CDC decided to demobilize their field staff and halt the CASPER survey, said Huff.

The CDC did not respond to NBC News' email requesting comment.

Before the CDC pulled out its workers, the agency had collected test samples from about 400 residents statewide. The tests will be processed and analyzed, but they won’t be enough to provide a complete picture of coronavirus transmission in Minnesota, the AP reported.

"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," said Huff, adding, "Minnesota Department of Health stands against racism in its many forms."

Minnesota has reported about 2,000 coronavirus deaths and at least 95,659 confirmed cases since March.