ROCHESTER, Minn. — Three days after the mayor of Eitzen, Minn., challenged the veracity of a story of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers facing harassment in his small town, the state representative for that community demanded an apology.
"This was a completely irresponsible story promoted by the Minnesota Department of Health," state Rep. Greg Davids, of Preston, said in a statement released Monday, Sept. 28, "and equally irresponsible reporting by the media who, in its rush to judgment, ran with the story before any of these very troubling allegations had been verified ... I demand that the people of Eitzen receive an immediate apology not only from the Department of Health but from Governor Walz."
A story was first reported by multiple news outlets on Sept. 18 that a mid-September visit by CDC field workers had resulted in an armed group confronting workers, but did not name the town.
Friday, Sept. 25, health officials noted with disappointment that the CDC had decided to pull its teams from the state due to threats and racial harassment, effectively expelling the state from a national COVID-19 study.
While the Friday announcement referred to numerous events that caused CDC workers to feel threatened and intimidated, the health department named Eitzen as a community where workers were confronted by a trio of persons who blocked in their car, approached the workers in an intimidating fashion while using racial slurs, with one of the approaching group said to have had their hand on a holstered weapon.
"Racial epithets were used by the men towards the CDC staff," deputy commissioner of health Dan Huff said Friday, "and one of the men held his hand on a holstered gun." Those events and that news conference was reported in this publication and multiple news outlets across the state.
"We would like to make it clear that 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 teams," Eitzen City Mayor Jeffrey Adamson wrote in a Facebook post. Adamson said that a city official and two civilians did approach a trio of CDC workers to ask for their purpose, but speculated that the team had mistaken a hand on a holstered radio for a weapon.
"This very dangerous fake news has now generated unnecessary national headlines that smear the integrity and character of city officials and my constituents," Davids said.
While it's possible the events the CDC workers described were separate from the approach described by the mayor, it's also possible the field workers had indeed mistaken a holstered radio for a weapon. Huff said the workers reported numerous incidents, and said the health department had no reason to question the workers' stories.
"When staff reported this incident to us we took it very seriously," Huff said. "We have no reason to doubt the details of their report ... We have other incidents that were reported in southern and central Minnesota, and again those incidents collectively caused the CDC to remove their teams from the state ... I do not have any criticism of the CDC in that."
Huff would not speculate on the possibility that a radio was confused as a gun. The communities had no direct MDH notice of the visit by design, but the statewide initiative was reported widely in the news in advance.
"We actually do not talk to specific communities in a CASPER study as part of the research methodology," Huff said. "We want everyone to know it is happening, but we don't talk specifically about where it was happening. "
In other news, health officials Monday reiterated the governor's request that campaign visits abide by crowd limits, but gave no indication they would utilize enforcement measures or penalties when President Donald Trump campaigns in Duluth Wednesday, Sept. 30.
The state reported an additional 936 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the statewide laboratory confirmed case count to 97,638.
Additionally, the state recorded another seven deaths, bringing the statewide death toll to 2015.
An additional 22,162 tests were recorded Monday, making it the fifth consecutive day over 20,000 tests in the state. On Saturday, the state surpassed 30,000 tests for the first time. On Sunday, the state surpassed 2 million tests given since the start of the outbreak.
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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.