Thousands of Minnesotans who live in senior homes will be able to hug, kiss and hold hands with their loved ones for the first time in months under a new state policy that permits more families to go inside those facilities during the pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced Thursday that nursing homes and assisted-living facilities should allow indoor visitation "at all times and for all residents" regardless of whether the resident or visitor has been vaccinated, except in certain scenarios.

The action follows new federal recommendations issued Wednesday and builds on Minnesota's existing policies, which already permit the vast majority of the state's 2,100 senior homes to open their doors to visits by family members.

The policy change comes as coronavirus cases and deaths among senior home residents have plunged across Minnesota and as COVID-19 vaccinations have accelerated. As trends have improved, advocates for seniors and some lawmakers have been clamoring for an end to facility lockdowns, noting that many elderly residents have suffered anxiety and depression as well as physical decline since many homes placed strict limits on visitation nearly a year ago.

"Our seniors and their families have given up so much over the last year and I'm glad to see Minnesota move in a direction that treats them as equal and valued members of society," said state Sen. Karin Housley, chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy committee.

Early in the pandemic, the coronavirus raced through Minnesota's senior homes, killing thousands of elderly residents who were especially vulnerable because of their age and underlying health problems. Over the past year, 4,231 residents of long-term care communities have died from COVID-19 — representing 63% of all virus deaths, state records show. Amid a case surge last fall, some facilities became so overwhelmed that they reached out to the Minnesota National Guard for emergency staffing assistance. Many imposed new limits on visitation, which state health officials acknowledged deepened residents' isolation and misery.

But since the arrival of the vaccines in late December, the number of facilities with active COVID-19 outbreaks has fallen dramatically and the anxiety that permeated these communities just a few months ago has dissipated. More elderly residents are being allowed to leave the confinement of their rooms and join group activities, such as worship services, art classes and bingo, which have started up again at many senior communities.

Even so, Minnesota's senior homes have been given broad discretion over when and how to reopen, and many continued to maintain strict rules around visitation by family members. These included rules that limited visits to just one or two designated caregivers — and only at specified times of the week. At many senior homes, family members are still not allowed to go into residents' rooms and instead must meet in conference rooms while staff watch.

Residents also have faced limits on when they could leave. Many facilities still require residents to quarantine in their rooms for up to 14 days if they leave the premises, even if they are healthy.

Those restrictions have continued even after the vast majority of senior home residents have been vaccinated, and amid evidence that the shots are helping to keep vulnerable seniors alive. State health officials said Wednesday that 85% of all nursing home residents have received at least one dose of the vaccines, and 73% have received both doses.

The new guidance should lead to more relaxed visitation policies. Though consistent with the federal guidelines, the new rules come with some notable limits. Indoor visits should be allowed at all times, the guidance states, unless a guest is visiting an unvaccinated resident in a county where the COVID-19 positivity rate is higher than 10% and less than 70% of residents in the nursing home have been fully vaccinated. The guidance also says to limit visits if residents are infected with COVID-19 or are in quarantine.

"Vaccinations and the slowing of coronavirus infections are allowing us to safely expand visitation and allow indoor visits that bring families and residents together," the Department of Health said in a statement. "Minnesotans can help continue the positive momentum by taking the right steps to prevent spread of COVID-19."

Still, it remains unclear how the new policy will be enforced. Even under the previous state guidance issued last fall, nearly all of Minnesota's senior homes should have allowed indoor visits by family members, state officials said.

"It is imperative that the Department of Health fully implement and enforce this new visitation guidance," said Kristine Sundberg, executive director of Elder Voice Family Advocates. "We cannot let long-term care facilities pick and choose what they will allow or not allow."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres