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CDC Calls Off Minnesota COVID-19 Study After Reports of Racism and Intimidation Against Surveyors of Color

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A Minnesota public health survey of the impact of COVID-19 has been halted after several incidents in which surveyors of color were intimidated or called racial slurs, state health officials confirm to TIME.

The Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response survey, or CASPER survey, was scheduled to run between Sept. 14 and Sept. 30 and was meant to help public health officials understand the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota. The voluntary and in-person survey was developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to examine the impact of different public health emergencies. Similar surveys are also being conducted in several other states. According to the StarTribune, the surveyors were visiting 180 Minnesota neighborhoods, offering free COVID-19 tests.

“Through the CASPER survey, we had hoped to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading in Minnesota and how it is affecting people. That kind of understanding could have helped us improve multiple aspects of our response,” said Dan Huff, the Assistant Commissioner for the Health Protection Bureau of the Minnesota Department of Health, in a statement to TIME.

“However, a series of troubling incidents across Minnesota caused the CDC to pull its teams and halt the project,” he continued. “CASPER teams with people of color on them have been subjected to racial slurs.”

Huff said on Sept. 15, a team of surveyors in Eitzen, Minn., were surrounded by three men, one of whom was armed, and “refused to accept their identification as public health workers.” The men used “racial epithets” against the survey team, who “felt that the intention of the men was to intimidate them,” his statement continued.

Huff’s statement lists several other troubling episodes, including occasions where surveyors were followed or videotaped, or where community members yelled at surveyors and threatened to call the police.

“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,” Huff said in his statement. “Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents had on team members, CDC decided to demobilize their field staff.”

The CDC did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Stephanie Yendell, a state senior epidemiology supervisor, told the StarTribune that during a discussion last weekend, a Hispanic surveyor said she was called a specific slur “more in the last week than in her entire life.”

“The Minnesota Department of Health stands against racism in its many forms, whether that be individual acts or structural racism, a root cause of health inequities,” Huff continued. “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.”

As of Saturday morning ET, Minnesota has at least 94,189 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 2,046 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com