It has been a heart-wrenching conundrum since the start of the pandemic. Visits from loved ones are vital to long-term care residents' quality of life. Yet protecting seniors from a virus that has proved deadliest to those of advanced age has required shutting facilities' doors to virtually all but staff.

Elders have still been able to talk by phone and enjoy "window visits," but these are no substitute for seeing family and friends in person. Fortunately, an innovative solution is at hand thanks to timely teamwork by Minnesota's elder care providers and the state Health Department.

Later this month, the "Essential Caregivers" program is set to launch. It strikes a needed balance between infection control and contact with loved ones by allowing a limited number of visitors into care centers.

Those designated as essential caregivers won't be able just to walk in, of course. They'll need to be screened for COVID symptoms and required to wear protective gear. There may also be limited areas for visitors.

The rules will vary by facility, but are well worth the effort. These protections will help reduce the risk to those in danger of severe illness.

The essential caregiver program is voluntary, but hopefully as many facilities as possible will take advantage of it. LeadingAge Minnesota, a long-term care industry organization, said facilities are working to develop policies to implement it after state health officials rolled out guidelines.

The organization, unsurprisingly, is also reporting significant interest in the program from residents' families and friends. Visitor restrictions have been in place since March. That's a long time to go without an in-person visit.

The new program is an admirable example of thoughtful problem-­solving. It builds on previous collaboration by the Minnesota Department of Health and the state's long-term care providers.

A 2017 Star Tribune series exposed disturbing gaps in senior care oversight. When legislators failed to modernize regulations, senior care providers, advocates and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm forged a deal on how to do so.

Their work brought peace of mind to many. The new program will, too.