Vaccines ramp up statewide

Vaccines ramp up statewide

by Access Press staff

The opening of vaccination lists to more Minnesotans, and easing of some COVID-19 restrictions are welcomed by many people with disabilities. Still, federal and state health officials caution that the pandemic is far from over. Calls for masks, good sanitation practices and social distancing remain, even for those who have had their vaccines. That’s especially true for people with disabilities, their caregivers and family members.

New virus variants are especially worrisome, especially with some families traveling on spring break trips. And given some personal resistance to vaccines, reaching 80 percent vaccination and “herd immunity” is a challenge.

President Joe Biden, in a televised addressed in March, said vaccines should be available to all adults who want them by May 1. He expressed hope that July 4 of this year would be an “independence day’ from the pandemic. For people who have spent the last year isolating themselves, that is welcomed news.

More than 800,000 Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. That is more than 13 percent of the state’s population. More than 2 million had received their initial vaccine doses as April began. Among those who have lined up for shots are adults with Down syndrome, who were added to the vaccine eligibility list March 10.

That’s a big win for advocates in Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota (DSAMN), who waged a high-profile effort to raise awareness of the pandemic risks to its constituency. But it is still a waiting game for people with other disabilities who are under age 65 and living in the community. Frustration is growing after more than a year of quarantine for many.

The opening of more testing sites and vaccination sites continues, as more people return to school and workplaces. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommends all school-age youth returning to school, sports or extracurricular activities, and their families, get tested every two weeks through the end of the school year. People who travel during spring break are also recommended to be tested for COVID-19.

A majority of the state’s residents older than age 65 are vaccinated, although gaps remain. One concern is with communities of color and with homebound senior citizens, so those populations don’t lag behind in getting vaccinated. Front-line health care workers, group home residents and nursing home residents are also prioritized.

In mid-March, the vaccine eligibility list was expanded to include Minnesotans with oxygen-dependent chronic lung and heart conditions, sickle cell disease, those in active cancer treatment or with compromised immune systems due to organ transplant, and rare conditions or disabilities that put them at risk. The focus is on people ages 45 to 64 with one or more high-risk medical conditions, or people ages 16 to 44 with two or more of these conditions, including active cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart conditions, such as heart failure coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies, weakened immune system due to organ transplants, HIV, bone-marrow disease, chronic steroids for more than 30 days, immunodeficiency disease, immunosuppressive medications; obesity (body mass index greater than 30), pregnancy; and Type 1 or 2 diabetes.

Also included are essential frontline workers, including agricultural, pre-K through adult basic and community education school staff or contracted school staff, childcare staff at licensed and certified childcare centers or programs, first responders, those who work in correctional settings, food-processing plant workers, food production, food retail, food service, judicial system, manufacturing, public transit and postal. People age 50 or older who live in multi-generational housing are also covered by the latest eligibility expansion.

Restrictions are easing

As more vaccines are administered and pandemic trends change, some restrictions are eased.

MDH on March 17 announced that vaccinated residents of nursing homes, long-term care and assisted living facilities face fewer quarantine restrictions. They can go out into the community for meals and shopping, attend in-person worship service and hug and hold hands with family members. People can meet with others who have been vaccinated and don’t have COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, and not face a two-week quarantine period afterward.

Family members or friends who visit facilities must still wear masks.

Gov. Tim Walz has also signed an executive order to expand capacity limits for certain spaces in Minnesota due to progress made on COVID-19 vaccinations. Restaurants will also be able to stay open later.

Restaurants can increase the “not to exceed” capacity to 250, while leaving the maximum capacity at 50 percent. Indoor entertainment venues can increase “not to exceed” capacity to 250, while leaving the maximum capacity at 25 percent. restaurants can stay open until 11 p.m., instead of 10 p.m.

At private events and celebrations, such as weddings and receptions, the “not to exceed” capacity is 50, while leaving the maximum capacity at 25 percent.

The gym and pool “not to exceed” capacity can increase to 250, while leaving maximum capacity at 25 percent, and reducing distancing requirement to six feet. Those changes are specially important for people with disabilities who have missed exercise and therapies.

Work with community connectors

Walz has also announced that state officials have partners with about 30 community organizations to help connect Minnesotans with the COVID-19 vaccine, including centers for independent living and disability service organizations.

COVID-19 Community Coordinators work with the state to ensure people have access to the Minnesota COVID-19 Vaccine Connector and other COVID-19 information specific to their communities, including in multiple languages.

“Last week, we announced the rollout of the Vaccine Connector – a tool to help Minnesotans find out when, where, and how to get their vaccine,” Walz said. “I’m thrilled that we have invested in organizations on the ground to help connect Minnesota’s diverse communities with the vaccine. We are committed to making it as easy as possible for Minnesotans from every community to get the vaccine when it’s their turn.”

The organizations serve communities hit hardest by COVID-19, including communities of color, American Indian communities, LGBTQ+ communities and Minnesotans with disabilities. In addition to connecting them to vaccines, they continue to help community members find critical resources to address the impacts of COVID-19, such as employment, food access, housing, childcare and legal rights.

The governor’s office also said MDH is partnering with the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to contract with disabilities-centered community-based organizations including several centers for independent living. MDH is also partnering with the Department of Human Services (DHS) Refugee and Immigrant Resettlement Network to contract with refugee service agencies across the state.

The organizations involved are:

African Career, Education Resources, Inc. (ACER); African Immigrant Community Services (AICS); American Indian Community Housing Organization; Briva Health; CAPI USA; Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES); Comunidades Orgainzado el Poder y la Acción Latina (COPAL); Cultural Wellness Center; Department of Indian Work— Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul; Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research (HACER); Hmong American Partnership; Islamic Association of North America; JustUs Health; Northwest Indian Community Development Center; Phyllis Wheatley Community Center; Stairstep Foundation; Tserha Aryam Kidist Selassie (TAKS); Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota; WellShare International; BLIND, Inc.; Lighthouse Center for Vital Living; Vision Loss Resources; Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeastern Minnesota; Independent Lifestyles; Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL); Options: Interstate Resource Center for Independent Living (IRCIL); Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living (SEMCIL); Southern Minnesota Independent Living Entreprises & Services (SMILES); and the DHS Refugee and Immigrant Resettlement Network. 

Still looking for a vaccine? Contact one of the connector groups or use the state’s website at https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/connector/

For more information on the pandemic, go to www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/