Racial slurs, threats halt COVID-19 study in Minnesota

An armed group boxed in a car of health workers. A Latina health worker said she repeatedly heard racial slurs.
A May 15, 2020 photo of Minnesota National Guard soldiers labeling a sample from a patient during COVID-19, Coronavirus testing at a long-term care facility in Minneapolis. A COVID-19 study was halted when health workers reported being subjected to threats and racial slurs.
A May 15, 2020 photo of Minnesota National Guard soldiers labeling a sample from a patient during COVID-19, Coronavirus testing at a long-term care facility in Minneapolis. A COVID-19 study was halted when health workers reported being subjected to threats and racial slurs. [ BEN HOUTKOOPER/NATIONAL GUARD | ]
Published Sept. 26, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota officials have stopped a COVID-19 testing study after multiple reports that state and federal public health workers were greeted by racial and ethnic slurs as they went door-to-door.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pulled federal surveyors out of Minnesota this week after they experienced verbal abuse and intimidation. In Eitzen, along the Iowa border, one survey team was boxed in by two cars and threatened by three men, including one with a gun.

“The team felt the intent was clearly to intimidate and scare them,” said Stephanie Yendell, who supervised Minnesota’s role in the survey. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the only incident.”

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, said frustration with the state’s response to the pandemic is understandable, but “there is no justification for this — the enemy is the virus and not the public health workers who are trying to help.”

The survey teams were going to 180 neighborhoods this month to offer free testing for COVID-19 and for antibodies, and to try to understand how the virus was spreading, particularly among people with no known symptoms.

Yendell said the teams that included people of color reported more incidents than teams with only white people. “We had a Latina team member who said she’d been called a particular epithet more times in the last week than in her entire life,” she said.

Incidents occurred mostly in central and southern Minnesota — rural areas where there has been more resentment over COVID-19 restrictions.

Before the work stopped, testers collected samples from about 400 residents statewide. Those tests will be processed and analyzed, but won’t provide a complete picture of coronavirus transmission.


Minnesota was downgraded Friday to the “uncontrolled spread” category by a website that tracks each state’s progress toward stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Friday’s rating switch by the COVID-19 Exit Strategy website was based on a more than 25% increase in infections in Minnesota in the most recent 14 days for which it had data, the Star Tribune reported. Neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota have been at that lowest rating for weeks.

Minnesota has reported 1,994 COVID-19 deaths and 94,189 confirmed cases of the coronavirus since March. The totals include 1,191 new cases as of Friday, and six new deaths. New infections were reported Friday in 78 of the state’s 87 counties.


With Minnesota’s new school year barely underway, some school districts are shifting learning models — with some bringing students back to class and others sending kids home.

In southern Minnesota, the middle school and high school in Fairmont went to a hybrid learning method, and then to full-time distance learning, this week after rising cases in the community. Elementary students will begin attending school in a hybrid model next week.

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“I’m disappointed in our region. And I’m really sad,” Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joseph Brown told Minnesota Public Radio News. “I’m kind of angry because this is not our kids' fault. You know that the adults are not doing what they need to do.”

In Brainerd, district officials transitioned all high school students to full-time distance learning for two weeks.

But students in other school districts are heading back to class after starting at home. A Pioneer Press review of school plans posted online shows nine of the state’s 50 largest districts began the school year with every grade in distance learning. But two of those districts — Mounds View and North St. Paul–Maplewood–Oakdale — have since invited some or all of their students back part-time. Multiple other districts have plans to begin part-time in-person learning next week or sometime in October.

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