ST. PAUL — Vaccinated residents of long-term care facilities will be able to hug family members and start going to in-person church services or family dinners with fewer quarantine restrictions under new state guidance published Wednesday, March 17.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday issued a set of more relaxed guidelines for residents in nursing homes and assisted living communities, days after federal health agencies loosened their directions for long-term care facilities.

The state recommendations will allow residents who've been vaccinated to attend worship services, shop or go out for a meal or meet with other vaccinated people outside their community without requiring a two-week quarantine period afterward. And vaccinated residents can hug or hold hands with family members or friends who pay them a visit as long as visitors wear masks.

Vaccinated residents will be able to meet in indoor or outdoor settings with other vaccinated people and can visit with up to one household of nonvaccinated individuals as long as those people haven't tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to someone within 14 days who has the illness.

For nearly a year, long-term care residents have faced limited in-person visits with loved ones as COVID-19 made its way into the facilities and spurred 4,243 deaths. The emotional impact has scarred those residents, as well as their family members and friends who've yearned to spend time with them.

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But with long-term care resident vaccination rates exceeding 70% in most facilities and more long-term care staff seeking out the shots, state health officials said the facility administrators could ease restrictions. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Wednesday said that Minnesotans' efforts to mitigate COVID-19's spread had also helped propel the changes.

"We know how important this is to Minnesotans and are just really pleased to be making this big step forward," she told reporters. "All of us as Minnesotans need to help continue the positive momentum."

The news elicited positive reactions from assisted care facility leaders, who said residents had been waiting for the OK for family visits and more social time with fellow residents for weeks.

“As providers, we’ve been managing in this extremely difficult chasm between our pledge to keep people safe and our pledge to keep people connected and that constant tug and pull has been hard on everyone, residents, families and caregivers alike," Nathan Johnson, CEO of Pioneer Care, told a Minnesota Senate panel on Wednesday, noting the new state rules would allow for more visits or resident trips out into the community with less quarantining and social distancing.

“We’re going to be able to bring in more visitors more often and it allows for more close contact," he said, "translation: We can hug again.”

State guidance sets a recommendation for outdoor visits where feasible and calls for testing, if facilities have access, for visitors hoping to access communities in counties where infection case counts have reached medium or high levels.

If residents are in close contact with someone sick with COVID-19 or that can spread the virus, they'll be asked to quarantine after a visit. And prospective visitors who've interacted with a COVID-positive person will be turned away, according to the guidance.

Unvaccinated residents will face the same guidance around quarantining after they leave their home.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com