ST. PAUL — Nearly a year after the first seniors in Minnesota began receiving COVID vaccines, many of the state’s elderly residents have yet to visit with friends and family — especially unvaccinated grandkids — or venture back to public spaces and resume their pre-pandemic exercise routine, raising concerns with experts about health dangers associated with isolation and depression.
At the same time, deaths related to COVID in nursing homes ticked upward toward the end of summer, a grim reminder that the pandemic is still not in the rearview.
Those are the findings of two new studies published by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which surveyed seniors statewide this summer, and AARP Minnesota, which maintains a COVID-19 dashboard that tracks federally-reported COVID data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on a monthly basis.
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield study found that while 90 percent of the state’s seniors have been vaccinated, some seniors are “returning to normal” more slowly.
From July 26 to Aug. 13, researchers surveyed 500 Minnesota residents at least 64 years of age who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. Interviews took place during a summer COVID surge led by the Delta variant.
1 in five seniors has yet to visit with family, friends
Overall, one in five vaccinated seniors had yet to visit with any family or friends, according to the findings. Two in five vaccinated seniors in the survey said they did not feel comfortable socializing with unvaccinated grandchildren.
A majority of vaccinated seniors said they were dissatisfied with their health, with one-third of regular exercisers from pre-pandemic times still waiting to return to an exercise regimen.
On the flip side, two-thirds of vaccinated seniors reported having regular face-to-face interactions with others and enjoying a more active lifestyle now than they did earlier in the pandemic.
More than half of vaccinated seniors said they had returned to public spaces such as shopping centers and restaurants.
Among vaccinated seniors, 95 percent said they were still following at least one COVID-19 precaution, the survey found, such as avoiding crowds or wearing a mask.
While recognizing the dangers to seniors posed by breakthrough COVID cases, Blue Cross health experts noted previous studies have linked social isolation and loneliness to potentially life-threatening medical conditions, including dementia, heart disease, depression and anxiety.
“The vaccine has been a liberator for many Minnesota seniors as they start to return to the activities they’ve missed most, but the pandemic is definitely taking its toll,” said Dr. Mark Steffen, vice president and chief medical officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, in a written statement.
“Socializing outdoors … is a great way to stay connected to friends and family,” he said. “But with breakthrough infections on the rise, it’s important that seniors continue to protect themselves and others by wearing masks indoors in areas where there are high levels of COVID-19 transmission even if they are vaccinated.”
92% of nursing home residents vaccinated
On a monthly basis, AARP posts to its online dashboard federal data reported by nursing homes certified by Medicare or Medicaid, which does not include assisted living or other long-term care facilities.
AARP Minnesota reported that vaccination rates among the state’s nursing home residents and staff have increased, with 92 percent of residents and 70 percent of staff fully vaccinated as of Sept. 19, up from 91 percent and 68 percent in mid-August.
Still, nursing homes have not been immune to COVID outbreaks and breakthrough cases. In Minnesota, deaths related to COVID grew from 1 in 5,000 nursing home residents to 1 in 1,000 residents between August and September.
That’s a fivefold increase. Nationally, COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes doubled during the same period as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus took hold.
Delta has primarily infected the unvaccinated, but the vaccinated elderly, with their less robust immune systems, have been affected, too.
The dashboard, assembled by the AARP Public Policy Institute in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, is available online at aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard.
Other findings show that chronic staffing issues in Minnesota nursing homes continue, with 57 percent of facilities reporting a shortage of nurses or aides in the four weeks ending Sept. 19. Shortages have also trended upward nationally, with 29 percent of nursing facilities short on staff, on par with the highest level of shortages seen since last winter’s COVID wave.
Nationally, more than half of health care staff in nursing homes are now vaccinated in every state. AARP has called on nursing homes and long-term care facilities to require that staff and residents be vaccinated against coronavirus, and the Biden administration has announced plans to require vaccination for staff in nursing homes and most health care settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid payments.