In what was intended to be a research study to help determine how the COVID-19 virus is spread in communities throughout Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) began dispatching two-person teams into communities for voluntary participation in a survey called CASPER (Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response).
Two Wright County Public Health employees – Shelley Layer and Chastity Booth – were joined by registered nurses to conduct the surveys in the cities of Delano, Rockford, Annandale and Maple Lake and their experience was overwhelmingly positive. Not everyone chose to participate, but there was no overtly negative pushback.
That wasn’t the case in other areas of the state, where workers were harassed, intimidated by armed residents, subject to racial slurs and treated in a manner far removed from the cliché “Minnesota Nice.”
In a surprise announcement, CDC and MDH officials stated that the program would be immediately and completely shut down. In a statement, MDH Section Chief Deb Burns explained why the CASPER program was being halted.
“CDC determined the reception these teams were getting in communities was too often hostile. Given the uncertainty of the situation and the impact the incidents had on team members, CDC decided to demobilize the entire team. 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.”
While other survey teams were treated in a disgusting fashion, no such issues were reported in either of the Wright County teams that went into the four communities earlier this week.
“They came to Wright County and the people we had in Delano and Rockford were awesome,” Layer said. “They were very welcoming and glad to participate. Our people represented Wright County extremely well. It was very cool.”
However, the nurse that accompanied Layer and served as the lab sampler for COVID-19 and antibody testing (for those who chose to allow sampling as part of their survey) had experienced the type of obnoxious encounters reported in other parts of the state.
“He had a bad experience in the days prior to coming out to Wright County,” Layer said. “He was working down in the Mankato area. A woman turned her phone camera on and was taunting them and trying to get them to react negatively. They just killed her with kindness and she just walked away in a huff. It was really frustrating because they were attempting to get seven surveys completed and they only got two.”
Booth also heard of horror stories from the nurse she was teamed with.
“She got paired up with someone from the areas where the surveys were taking place and each was different,” Booth said. “She told me there was an instance of two black people that were on a team in a remote country area and they ended up having to swap them out because of how poorly they were treated.”
Neither Booth nor Layer knew what to expect when they started their work on Monday (Sept. 21). The CASPER study had begun Sept. 14 and was scheduled to run through the end of the month. Both had heard of some incidents happening to other workers and they had legitimate concerns about their safety.
“I was very nervous because I had seen the reports on the news of teams running into people that were armed and being very intimidating and frightening,” Booth said. “We had heard a rumor that they might cancel the program because of the problems they had experienced in different parts of the state. It was both sad and a little scary. The nurse I had with me was 23 years old and had done six of these prior to coming to Wright County. She was just glowing about the people of Wright County and how easy they made it for us. She had never got all seven surveys that MDH wanted in any of her clusters prior to coming to Wright County. We got all seven in both Maple Lake and Annandale. We were scheduled to go three days, but we got all but one of ours done in two and came back to the seventh one on Wednesday and they were more than happy to take part.”
To conduct the CASPER surveys, MDH gave the workers an aerial map of the towns they were assigned with a specific area inside a blue outline box. In Layer’s case, they would go to the front door of one house, skip the next four, go to the next house, skip the next four and repeat that pattern. In Booth’s case in Maple Lake, it was one of every 10 houses in the same random pattern. If they received a rejection, they could continue the process until they got seven participants. Both only received one rejection.
As word of the survey started to spread, a rise of negative responses on social media message boards sprouted up. Layer said she responded to a negative comment on Facebook by someone she knew well and her comment received several vicious responses from other Facebook users. It only served to heighten her anxiety about what she was potentially walking into if she knocked on the wrong random door.
“I was a little scared coming in because we had heard about other people meeting with very nasty and sometimes scary responses,” Layer said. “But, that concern for me stopped when we did our first survey. The first woman I contacted said she would love to be part of the survey. That eased my mind and we ended up getting a lot of positive response. I think that speaks to the kind of people we have in Wright County.”
The CASPER study was intended to assist the medical and scientific communities to find differences in how the COVID-19 virus spreads in different communities. The hope was that the data gleaned could be used to better address the issues and the response of local Public Health officials. Instead, it turned out to be a program that too often was met with hostility, ignorance, boorish behavior and, at times, physical intimidation.
However, none of that happened in Wright County – perhaps a testament to how neighbors treat neighbors in our communities.
“I’m very proud of our county,” Booth said. “The behaviors that we were seeing going on elsewhere, we didn’t see here. I don’t know how other parts of the county that other people did turned out, but the four towns Shelley and I did, we both had a really good experience. It’s just sad that wasn’t the case everywhere.”