Eitzen residents never expected that they would see their quiet town of 250 residents a talking point in the national discussion on racism, but that is where they found themselves last month. On September 15, a concerned housewife with children at home called town officials about strangers driving an unmarked car with California plates going door-to-door. The team was claiming to be conducting a COVID-19 survey and offering free medical tests.
The residents of Eitzen are fondly described as great people, hardworking people. Many of Eitzen’s residents are seniors who have been responsible for building a healthy community for years.
“What has happened to Eitzen following the incident on September 15 involving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) staff was “horrific, shameful, and inconceivable” stated Representative Greg Davids.
Davids has taken the next step and filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain data from both the Governor’s office and MDH.
The Mayor of Eitzen, Jeffrey Adamson, explained what happened in a statement released on September 25. The three surveyors showed the city employee from the town’s fire department and the two residents with him their credentials and explained why they were in town. Afterward, everyone went on their way.
In response to questions from the Fillmore County Journal reporter, MDH spokesman, David Schultz, confirmed that the surveyors were wearing their required vests and that the CDC employees did have IDs available.
Eitzen’s media statement stated that the surveyor’s car was unmarked and had California plates. There were no guns, and no radical slurs were spoken.
Schultz verified that the car was a rental vehicle with California plates, which is standard procedure for CDC employees on deployment. The CDC employees were not from Minnesota.
News accounts stated the surveyors were blocked in which was categorically denied by Mayor Adamson.
Eitzen does not have a police department. Houston County Sheriff Mark A. Inglett confirmed in a September 25 media release that his office “has spoken with MDH personnel, but that the alleged victims have not contacted our office, and at this point, we are aware of their identities and have not spoken with them directly and therefore cannot confirm or deny the allegations.”
The next question that has yet to be satisfactory answered is whether Minnesota communities were notified. MDH explained, “Every project is different, so we develop a communications plan specific to the project. There are public health best practices for community surveys, and the CASPER study had its own CDC-designed protocols and outline for community awareness. Generally, the plan called for communities to be made aware that the survey would be taking place and approximately when, but not to notify exact neighborhoods so as not to bias the intake or results of the survey.”
According to the CASPER survey communications timeline provided by MDH, the department began releasing announcements to local public health and through the department’s media partners on August 24. Announcements continued until September 12. Paid promoted posts ran on social media platforms from September 13 through the 23. On September 14, the CASPER FAQ webpage went live.
Houston County Public Health Director, John Pugleasa, shared that they were not directly notified. The office heard about the CASPER survey in a Zoom meeting of colleagues. At that time, the county’s Public Health office shared the information through their usual distribution list. Houston County Administrator Jeffrey Babinski also share the information with their contacts.
In MDH, Monday, September 28, COVID Briefing Daniel Huff, Assistant Commissioner, replied to a reporter’s question. “When staff reported this incident to us. We took it very seriously. We had no reason to doubt the details of their report. But this and reports of other incidents were serious enough that the CDC decided to pull their teams.”
A fellow reporter then asked Huff. “Do you have any feeling or sense that it was an overreaction to pull the teams out of the state by the CDC?”
“The priority in all of our work is for the safety of the staff. The staff was traumatized by many of the events they experienced. We are very appreciative of the support we have received from the CDC. We agree with this that putting their staff first and the safety of their staff is the most important thing. I do not have any criticism of the CDC.”
The data obtained under the Freedom of Information will answer everyone’s questions and put this unfortunate situation to rest.
Photo: Eitzen, Minn., recently made the national news.
Photo by Charlene Corson Selbee