COVID-19 poses a particular threat in long-term care facilities, both due to the congregate settings and the fact that residents are typically older and have underlying medical conditions, putting them at risk.
But issues caused – or exacerbated – by the pandemic extend far beyond that, with problems regarding staffing and turnover, and protective measures inadvertently subjecting residents to isolation and loneliness, Assistant Health Commissioner Diane Rydrych told the House Human Services Finance and Policy Committee Thursday.
“Some of the biggest challenges about this work have not been about the technical aspects,” she said. “It’s about finding the right balance between protecting vulnerable seniors from the risks of the virus, which are severe … If you overbalance … you can create barriers that isolate them.”
In an attempt to find a better balance, the state is now advising, or even requiring, that facilities admit visitors, so long as a facility has not had an outbreak of COVID-19 in the previous couple of weeks, and the positivity rate in the county is less than 10%, Rydrych said.
“We must never, never minimize what happens to the wellbeing of people when they are separated and cannot be connected,” said State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Cheryl Hennen. “So many people did not spend wedding anniversaries, funeral time together, graduations. The list goes on and on and on.”
Rep. Debra Kiel (R-Crookston) said a family in her district had parents located in Albert Lea who were separated because of the COVID-19 response and were unable to see each other on their 60th wedding anniversary. While the ombudsman’s office was unable to get the couple together on the day itself, they were able to help the couple move into the same building.
“We think of reporting the challenges to protect people, but there’s also just life issues that need to be handled,” Kiel said.
The ombudsman’s office has actually managed to expand its capacity to help elderly and vulnerable adults over the course of the pandemic, using funding provided by the Elder Care and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act, passed into law in 2019.
This allowed the number of regional ombudsmen to increase from nine to 16 in Greater Minnesota, and from five to eight in the seven-county metro area – though one more regional ombudsman remains to be hired in the Rochester area.
The office also now has additional staff to answer calls and a designated staff member working on electronic monitoring and other legislative activities.
“It was my goal that we would … reinvest back into reaching our people. That is what you wanted me to do, expected me to do, and we’re doing this. We’re doing this during a pandemic,” Hennan said.
The office began working virtually in March 2020 to help mitigate the spread of the virus, but has continued its advocacy work, beginning “window visits” this past October and resuming in-person meetings when possible this winter.