The COVID-19 pandemic has brought countless changes to the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities. Many have lost caregivers. Others been forced to leave day activity programs and jobs, and stay at home. Many are isolated in group homes or care facilities, unable to see family and friends and be out in their communities. But the biggest questions may center on about the timing of their COVID-19 vaccines.
In the United States, more than 25 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported. There have been more than 414,000 deaths as of mid-January, a toll that continues to climb. National and state leaders are trying to accelerate vaccination programs.
Health care workers, emergency medical service workers, first responders, COVID-19 testers, people administering vaccinations long-term care facility residents are in the first group to be vaccinated in Minnesota. They are to be followed by others in health care including urgent care and disability center workers.
People in home health settings and group homes would follow but it’s not clear when that would be. There are fears that it could take several months to get everyone vaccinated.
Vaccinations for Minnesotans age 65 and older began in January. A state pilot program quickly became overwhelmed, as people waited for hours to get vaccinations scheduled or were unable to get through the online system.
For younger people with disabilities, timing is less certain. That’s a concern because studies have shown that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities may be three times as likely to contract the coronavirus.
People with disabilities are urged to talk to their health care providers about the vaccine and its availability. But even when people can be vaccinated, wearing of masks, washing hands and safe social distancing are still urged.
Face coverings continue to be required in indoor environments that are open to the public as well as businesses. Masks can temporarily be removed when necessary. Those situations include eating and drinking, or being identified.
There are exceptions for people who have medical or health conditions, disabilities or mental health, developmental or behavioral needs that make it difficult to wear a face covering. The state does not have a defined list of conditions that qualify for the exceptions. The mask directives could change as new President Joe Biden makes takes significant steps to control the spread of coronavirus.
People with disabilities also continue to be affected by shifts and changes in state directives to slow the spread of coronavirus. Restaurants, bars, gyms, museums, theaters, swimming pools and other businesses began to reopen with restrictions in January. Gatherings continued to be restricted.
Some schools opted to reopen, or go to a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. As of January 18, elementary schools could choose to operate in an in-person learning model as long as they provided and required staff to wear a face shield and mask and offered regular testing. The decision is left up to each school district, with in consultation with health and education officials. Schools can switch to distance learning or a combination of both in-person and online learning.
Changes to school schedules have caused anxiety for parents of special education students. Some students have struggled greatly over the past several months with distance learning. Yet there are fears of students and teachers becoming ill.
Support services available
Minnesotans who need help coping with the coronavirus pandemic will now have more support services available, thanks to grants from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).
DHS has awarded a total of $1.68 million to 11 community agencies across the state for crisis counseling services to help people struggling with stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic.
“As with any disaster that causes significant disruption to our lives, recovery includes addressing the mental health needs of those most impacted,” said DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “The grant funds going to our partners will provide additional support for people who need extra help right now.”
Minnesota’s Crisis Counseling Program will focus primarily on those communities and individuals most affected. It will promote coping strategies, emotional support and an array of resources. Agencies receiving grants are: African American Child Wellness Institute, Care Providers of Minnesota, Change Inc., LeadingAGE, Mental Health Minnesota, Native American Community Clinic, NorthPoint, Turning Point Inc., Twin Cities Recovery Project, Inc., Watercourse Counseling, and Wellness in the Woods.
In addition, DHS has added a number of resources for adults and children coping with COVID-19. These materials are being translated into Spanish, Hmong and Somali.
The funding for the grants comes from a $1.83-million Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training program grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To learn more, go to mn.gov/dhs/coping-with-crisis
(Information from Minnesota DHS, the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control were used in this article.)