IRON RANGE - The number of long-term care and assisted living residents who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 is on the rise, with local facilities reporting that the majority have received the shot.

That’s good news for people residing in those locations, where populations have been hit hard with coronavirus outbreaks and deaths.

In Hibbing, Shane Roche, administrator of Guardian Angels Health and Rehab Center, said last week that 95 percent of the 60 residents here have received the Moderna vaccine. Just under 70% of the staff members have been vaccinated.

Marc Halpert, COO of Monarch Healthcare Management, which houses more than oversees long-term care and assisted living facilities across the state, including people in Virginia (75), Eveleth (55), Grand Rapids (104), Duluth and Superior, Wis., said more than 75% of residents and 64% of staff members have been vaccinated in those locations.

There have been three on-site vaccination clinics since December at each location, with a fourth one coming up to accommodate the two-shot vaccine. “We are still pushing to get the remainder of residents and staff vaccinated,” Halpert said.

Their overall sense of optimism comes after a troubled year for long-term care facilities across the state.

After a series of Covid-19 outbreaks, Guardian Angels last October called on the Minnesota National Guard to provide emergency staffing support. The deployments came during a spike in cases and deaths throughout the state’s 2,100 long-term care facilities. Meantime, each one of Monarch’s 40 locations has experienced COVID outbreaks during the past year, with some being hit worse than others, Halpert said. The Grand Rapids long-term care and assisted living facility was among the first to have positive cases. It provided a “learning experience” on how to protect people’s loved ones from the virus, he said.

Since the arrival of the pandemic in Minnesota, about 4,000 residents of long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, accounting for more than 60% of the deaths from the virus statewide.

Today, about 1.2 million Minnesotans, or more than 20% of the state’s population, including 72% of Minnesota seniors, have been vaccinated.

In a turn of good news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, or CMS, released new guidance amid the increase in vaccinations and drop in coronavirus cases and deaths among nursing home residents, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

The CMS guidance moves back in the pre-COVID-19 direction, saying that nursing homes “should allow indoor visitation at all times and for all residents, regardless of vaccination status,” MPR reported. Several exceptions are flagged, such as when a resident is known to be infected or in quarantine.

Under the guidelines, residents who have been vaccinated can get hugs, though precautions such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer remain in place. CMS also suggested that keeping 6 feet apart is still the safest policy, and recommended outdoors visits even when residents and visitors have been vaccinated.

Roche is enthused by the eased guidelines, though he noted the importance of following safety measures for the health of staff and residents. “We maintain a continued emphasis on the importance of infection prevention practices and we carefully monitor all residents for symptoms, screen all staff at the beginning of each shift, use PPE, and conduct audits of our infection control practices,” he said.

Meantime, CMS is also urging visitors to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The best thing people can do now, Halpert said, is get vaccinated so vulnerable populations are protected and so society can get back to a more “normal life.”

His local counterpart agreed. “The drop in new cases is a hopeful sign that the vaccines are starting to provide the protection we need and the infection control protocols put in place are working,” Roche said. “We are hopeful that continued vaccinations and further declines in COVID-19 cases will create even more guidance in the future to open our doors to our community.”

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