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'The Enemy Is The Virus, Not Each Other': COVID Survey Halted In Minn. After Incidents Of Racism And Intimidation

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- COVID-19 survey teams have been pulled from Minnesota after teams encountered intimidation and racism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that it pulled federal surveyors out of the state this week after multiple incidents.

According Minnesota Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff, health officials were "deeply disappointed" to hear about the incidents that led to the CDC's decision to pull the teams. He says survey teams with people of color have been subjected to racial slurs.

In one incident, Huff said a survey team in the southern Minnesota town of Eitzen was blocked by two cars and confronted by three men -- with one being armed. He says racial epithets were used by the men and the workers felt intimidated.

"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," Huff said.

Huff said the survey, called CASPER, hoped to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading in the state and how it is affecting people, which could have helped improve multiple aspects of the state's response to the virus.

"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," he said. "And no matter how frustrated someone may be, we must draw a clear line at expressions of racism against and intimidation of workers who happen to be people of color."

Huff said the health department stands against racism in its many forms, whether individual acts or structural racism.

"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," he said.

"I think what is particularly disturbing to all of us is that somehow you always think your home state is the best and that somehow we were better than all of that," said Kris Ehresmann, the infection disease director for the MDH.

The Minnesota Medical Association President Keith Stelter, MD also issued a statement:

"On behalf of Minnesota physicians, the Minnesota Medical Association is greatly disturbed about recent events that have occurred as we try to control the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota. Specifically, we are outraged over reports of door-to-door testers in greater Minnesota being met with intimidating racial and ethnic slurs to the point the CDC has decided to withdraw staff in the state and ended its efforts to better understand the scope and impact of this virus. 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, non-partisan 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. We urge all Minnesotans to continue to practice good health. Do your part by wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth when you're in any public space, stay six feet apart, wash your hands regularly, and limit gathering in groups."

Minnesota health officials say the survey was voluntary and families could say no if they did not want to participate.

On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,191 New COVID cases in Minnesota, which is the 2nd highest day ever on the current volume of testing we have right now.

RELATED: Nearly 1,200 Additional COVID-19 Cases Reported, With 6 More Deaths

Experts are saying we are currently in a fall surge.

"This is not really unexpected. It's what I've been predicting for over a month and a half," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and an expert in tracking this virus nationwide.

Dr. Osterholm says college students returning to campus are behind the surge, along with what he calls "pandemic fatigue" as people return to normal activities.

"We're seeing more and more outbreaks happening with weddings and funerals with family gatherings," said Osterholm. Because of these current behaviors, he says this pandemic is far from over.

"I'm terribly afraid that on New Year's Eve of 2020, looking into 2021, we're still going to be a long ways from having this behind us," said Osterholm.

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