Mary Ann Niehoff had waited nearly four months for the chance to scream out a five-letter word.

The opportunity finally came on a bright afternoon last week after group activities — including twice-weekly bingo games — resumed at the New Ulm senior home where Niehoff has been a fixture for the past two years.

The 92-year-old retired beautician, though weakened by months of isolation, let out a cathartic yell of "Bingo!" while waving her sheet in the air. Niehoff won two more rounds of bingo, collecting a banana and 25 cents in winnings, before calling her daughter with the good news.

"For the first time since the pandemic began, I can hear joy and hope in my mother's voice," said her daughter, Kathy Meinhardt of Bloomington. "She's making a comeback."

As the rate of new coronavirus cases has slowed and vaccines take hold, life at many senior homes across Minnesota has begun to take small but important steps toward a return to normalcy. Social activities like group exercises, games and communal dining have resumed at many locations with physical distancing still in effect. And facilities have begun to relax strict lockdowns on visits for the first time since late fall, ending months of isolation and enabling families to have face-to-face visits with their loved ones.

The stark turnabout is the result of a slowing of new coronavirus cases at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across Minnesota that public officials attribute to the rollout of vaccinations and stronger infection-control efforts. The weekly count of coronavirus cases in long-term care has plunged 90% from mid-November to the last week of January. In just the past six weeks, the number of facilities with active outbreaks of the virus has declined from 802 to 416 facilities, state records show.

The improvements mark a dramatic change from this fall, when rampant community spread of the virus led to a surge of deadly outbreaks. In late November, the pool of nurses and other caregivers became so dangerously depleted from new infections that dozens of senior care providers had to reach out to the state for emergency assistance.

Desperate to contain the spread, many facilities imposed strict new limits on family visits, preventing many seniors from leaving their rooms or sharing a meal with their loved ones over the holidays.

Hopeful sign

State health officials said the sharp drop in new cases is a hopeful sign that vaccines are beginning to provide meaningful protection and could mark a significant turning point in Minnesota's yearlong effort to contain the virus in the state's 2,100 senior care communities.

Since the start of the pandemic, 3,977 residents of Minnesota's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have died from COVID-19, accounting for 63% of the deaths from the virus statewide, state data show.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health released more data showing that overall trends are improving, and not just in long-term care communities.

The state's positivity rate of diagnostic COVID-19 testing has fallen to 4% — the lowest rate since June. The rate had peaked at 15.5% in November amid an upsurge in cases.

Overall, the agency reported six COVID-19 deaths and 586 diagnosed infections, bringing the state's totals to 6,308 deaths and 469,254 infections.

By the end of this week, the state will reach its goal of providing at least the first dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to nearly every long-term care resident in the state who has agreed to be vaccinated. So far, 81% of nursing home residents who have been offered the vaccines have agreed to receive them — an uptake rate that officials hope will further slow the virus' transmission in the coming weeks and months.

"This is really the first battle we are going to win in the war on COVID," Gov. Tim Walz said at an event Tuesday at a Minneapolis nursing home.

Kris Ehresmann, the state's infectious disease director, said she is hopeful the vaccines will provide a more lasting bulwark against the virus and that cases will continue to decline or remain stable even if they rise in the community. Until now, senior homes have struggled to keep the virus out of their buildings once infection rates rise in the communities that surround them, in part because workers unknowingly bring the virus in.

"We know this has been our most vulnerable population that has suffered the most under COVID, so to be able to get this group vaccinated right away and quickly will have a significant positive impact going forward," Ehresmann said. "What we hope is different about this decline [in cases] is that we expect this will be more extended and prolonged."

Now, at senior communities across the state, there is cautious optimism that Minnesota has finally turned a corner in its campaign to keep the virus in check.

At Tealwood Senior Living of Bloomington, the virus has almost disappeared across its network of 30 senior communities, which stretch from Fergus Falls, Minn., in northwest Minnesota to the town of Sherburn, Minn., near the Iowa border. As of Tuesday, Tealwood had just six positive cases among its residents and staff. That's down from 378 infections among its residents and staff in November. As a result, most of Tealwood's facilities have resumed social activities and communal dining, and residents are allowed to walk freely about the hallways for the first time in months.

"There is a level of excitement and energy that we haven't seen in a very long while," said Amanda Johnson, a nurse and vice president of clinical operations at Tealwood.

At many facilities, the arrival of the vaccines — combined with a drop in infections — has been a cause for celebration. The Jones-Harrison Residence senior community in south Minneapolis decorated its building with balloons and played music on the day last month that residents received their first doses. Some of the residents were swaying to the music as they waited in line for the shots.

After two weeks without a single case, Jones-Harrison Residence has opened up for visits again and has begun to schedule group activities at its 44 assisted-living apartments. There will be a Valentine's Day dinner and a wine-and-cheese tasting later this month. The facility has even created a new position, a visitation coordinator, to handle the influx of requests by families looking to visit their loved ones.

"It feels good — really, really good — to have our families back in," said Annette Greely, president and CEO at Jones-Harrison. "It helped that Minnesotans cared and put the masks on — and did their part to get us to this point."

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.