As more and more Minnesotans receive the COVID-19 vaccine, state officials are working to reach populations that are missing out on vaccine opportunities and developing new strategies to draw in those who are hesitating.
Opening of vaccines for everyone age 16 and older has been a help for many people with disabilities. But for others, barriers still exist. Finding drive-through sites for people with mobility issues continues to be a challenge in some parts of the state.
When April drew to a close more than 50 percent of Minnesota age 16 and older had been vaccinated. That’s short of the state’s goal of vaccinating 80 percent of the population. After weeks of people traveling long distances and spending hours online to get vaccine appointments, May began with some clinics urging people to come in for open times. Social media posts announced that sites had available vaccines that would go to waste.
But the state was also entering a third wave of COVID-19 cases this spring, which caused worry for health officials as they eyed more infectious virus variants and more demand for hospital bed space. Long-term vaccine supply chain issues also raised questions. Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials have been making more public appearances to urge Minnesotans to get vaccinated and to reach those who have waited.
Almost 85 percent of Minnesota’s senior citizens have been vaccinated. Given that elders account for almost 90 percent of the state’s COVID-19 death toll, that’s seen as a key accomplishment. The state was nearing 7,000 deaths by April’s end.
Vaccine statistic rates aren’t available for people with disabilities.
Partner disability service organizations continue to host clinics, including Golden Valley-based Workabilities. Workabilities recently welcomed Gov. Tim Walz to its facility for a vaccination clinic that involved about 300 staff and clients with developmental disabilities.
Workabilities is a day habilitation and training center with five programs. Executive Director Luana Ball said Workabilities was eager to host a vaccination clinic, so that staff and clients could get their vaccines.
State officials also worked with FEMA to open a large vaccination site at on the grounds of the Minnesota State fair in Falcon Heights. State officials have had disability advocates on hand for interpretation and other assistance
Mental health impacts
Efforts are stepping up to address short and long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic, which has dragged on for more than a year. The Minnesota Department of Health Disability Unit and its partners in April hosted a virtual conversation on mental health issues. The discussion included resources and coping strategies.
More than a year of the pandemic and public health restrictions has left many people with disabilities isolated and struggling. People who live with disabilities had routines upended and miss what had been regular human contact. Many living in group homes or multi-family buildings had access restrictions and could not see family and friends.
Those living with marginalization, uncertainty and stress have had that intensified. People are experiencing more symptoms of mental illness, suicidal ideation, and episodes of psychosis.
Marilyn Dornfeld, NAMI Minnesota’s director of adult programs, oversees family to family classes. The virtual sessions have been “packed” with people seeking help.
“Many families are wanting education and support,” Dornfeld said.
Living with mental illness meant major changes in resources and support systems and resources. Some have been “ghosted” or shut out by their own therapists. Others cannot see medical professionals in person. Although some places have opened up, Dornfeld said there are still fears of going out in public.
For families with school-age children the pandemic has been a very trying time, with more mental health conditions reported. For families with a disabled child, the challenges are beyond parents having to often teach and work at the same time. Support of individual education plans has been a mixed bag, with some families finding little to no support for their plans and the continuity plan services provide.
Session participants discussed coping and self-care strategies including following a routine, maintaining good daily living habits and staying connected to friends and family as much as possible. Participants expressed mixed feelings about things opening up as more people are vaccinated. Some like the idea of warmer weather allowing outdoor gatherings. Others are wary of a changing pandemic situation, with new variants.
A fluid situation
The pandemic continues to be a fluid situation, as more variants of the COVID-19 virus emerge. While school classrooms have been a major focus, with moves back
and forth to virtual learning as outbreaks pop up, little attention has been paid to prep adaptive sports and what happened to those activities.
Minnesota has one of the oldest and most robust adaptive prep sports programs in the United States. Adapted sports for high school students began in the 1960s and eventually became part of the Minnesota State High School League programs. Divisions are in place for athletes with physical and cognitive disabilities. Athletes compete in soccer, floor hockey, softball and bowling.
The state track and field program also offers events for athletes with disabilities, including wheelchair races and field events.
Tournaments and competition came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 and just started back up this season. Adaptive sports were put on hold, disappointing many athletes, coaches and families. That is especially true for 2020 and 2021 graduates, who missed their final seasons with their teammates and coaches.
Some instead played what were called “practice sea- sons” and had no tournaments. Not everyone returned as some families opted to have their children not take part. Champions were unable to defend their titles.
Adaptive high school sports are back this spring, with the state bowling tournaments in mid-May and the track and field meet in June. Bowlers compete in three categories – physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities and athletes on the autism spectrum.
Bowling is typically a large tournament in the Twin Cities, with schools across the state represented. In 2021, the bowling tournament will be a virtual competition. Athletes will be bowling at their home sites.
The track and field tournament, in which events for all athletes are held together, is also a very large event. It is usually held at Hamline University in St. Paul. As the newspaper went to press, no location or setup had been announced.
The Minnesota State High School League has implemented many safety protocols due to the pandemic, such as regular testing for athletes and not allowing teams to compete if an athlete or in some cases an opponent has a positive test.
Those protocols have caused controversy. In the boys’ state hockey tournament, one team had to forfeit due to positive tests. Another team had to field its junior varsity.
But while many young people of all abilities miss sports and competition, one huge red flag is that youth sports tournaments have been some of the bigger “super-spreader” events in the Upper Midwest. In recent weeks state health officials have seen an increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among young people. Many of those cases are linked directly to youth sports and tournament participation. A huge worry is that youth who test positive and become ill can spread the virus to others who may be more vulnerable to illness.
In late April the Minnesota Senate, Minnesota Department of Health staff and youth sports officials held a session discussing decisions made under COVID-19 policies. Some state lawmakers have complained that more transparency in rules is needed. So has the advocacy group
Let Them Play Minnesota, which has demanded fewer pandemic-related restrictions on youth sports. Let Them Play Minnesota has also disputed the findings of the state health department and has also taken unsuccessful legal action to make changes. A federal court case was thrown out earlier this year.
“We are at another critical point with this virus and we need to take action so that our students can continue with in-person learning and all those other activities that make the school experience a memorable experience,” Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller told KSTP-TV.
For information on vaccines, disease rates and how to sign up for vaccines, go to www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/