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Some communities face greater challenges in shifting pandemic landscape

For many at higher risk for COVID-19, it’s difficult to balance safety against social isolation as restrictions relax. In Bemidji, Minnesota, support programs are changing the way they help.

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Wellness and Enrichment Director Katelyn Burr, left, plays Yahtzee with Elaine Beehler and other clients on Monday, April 4, 2022, at Adult Day Services in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI, Minn. — Isolation has been an all too common experience for many during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly everyone has had a period where they felt removed from their friends or loved ones, relegated to virtual meetings because of safety concerns tied to seeing each other face-to-face.

Now, as restrictions on masking and testing relax amid lowering case numbers, isolation is becoming less common and most people seem to be returning to a sense of normalcy. But this isn’t the case for everyone.

For many people, those in higher-risk categories especially, measuring the right level of caution to protect their own health against the potential harm of social isolation remains an everyday balancing act.

“There are folks who are still waiting for numbers in communities to decline to a significantly lower level,” said Christian Breczinski, associate director of Accessibility Services at Bemidji State University.

Breczinski works with Bemidji State students who need accessibility accommodations, many of whom are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 as a result of their disability status or other health conditions.

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“There’s a real rush if you will, this societal rush to get out of lockdown mentality,” Breczinski said. “Just because the restrictions are relaxed doesn’t mean everybody is there.”

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Tammy Carroll, a floor staff member, helps clients with a round of Yahtzee on Monday, April 4, 2022, at Adult Day Services in Bemidji.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Even as the mask mandate for Bemidji State has ended and classes return in-person or as hybrid models, many of the students who are at higher risk continue to learn virtually.

“For the students who were immunocompromised on campus, many of them simply made the switch to online,” Breczinski said, “and they’ve stayed there.”

This decision to continue learning virtually has its drawbacks, however, even if it is the right decision for the students’ health.

“They recognize they miss out on some of the aspects of that on-campus life that can’t be replicated in an online setting,” Breczinski said. “I think for folks who are immunocompromised that’s the tricky part right now.”

While younger people with underlying health conditions quickly adapted to technology that could be used to mitigate isolation, embracing video calls and online learning, those same technologies are much less accessible to older populations in those same risk categories.

A balancing act

Deb Pierce, who works as a registered nurse for Bemidji's Adult Day Services — a center that primarily serves elderly individuals — described the difficulty older clients face trying to adapt to the technology being used during the pandemic.

“If they didn’t use it before they certainly didn’t start (using) it,” Pierce said. “Technology is difficult enough for somebody like me, it’s difficult for them to even attempt.”

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For elderly populations, particularly those who might be living with Alzheimer's or dementia, engagement and social interaction can play a pivotal role in keeping them healthy.

Though Adult Day Services remained open initially when the pandemic hit, they were later forced to temporarily close, interrupting the community and care it offered its clients. But Pierce stepped up to keep those in need connected.

“If they couldn’t come to me, I went to them,” Pierce said, describing those months when the center was closed. “I would bring them packages, if the client wasn’t comfortable with me coming into the home I sat outside and weeded the gardens, I sat and visited with them.”

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Bemidji resident Elaine Beehler said she spends nearly every weekday at Adult Day Services and is frequently in charge of the craft activities. Clients recently made bunnies out of paper for each table in the community room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Without Pierce’s efforts, many of these individuals would have faced relative isolation, with their families living far away and the community spaces they’d relied on no longer available.

“It’s so important for these elderly people for somebody to take the time to care about them,” Pierce said. “I feel like the elderly get the backseat to a lot of stuff.”

This concern about being forgotten is something Breczinski has also heard echoed in his conversations with immunocompromised students.

“There’s a concern that their voices will not be heard,” Breczinski said. “It’s clear we’re forgetting our folks who are immunocompromised who can’t afford to just jump right back into things.”

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A staff member helps clients with a round of Yahtzee on Monday, April 4, 2022, at Adult Day Services in Bemidji.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

With restrictions relaxing and numbers dropping, many people are more comfortable gathering and going out than they have been for months, but the math isn’t the same for everyone.

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“It’s important to not forget about the voices that are considerably more impacted by this on a day-to-day basis,” Breczinski said.

Both Breczinski and Pierce brought up the judgment and animosity that sometimes accompanies people’s decisions related to the pandemic, and how detrimental and dismissive it can be.

“I just feel like people have been really judgmental through this,” Pierce said. “I really feel like we just try to do whatever we can to make people safe and to make things more normal.”

The metrics that are needed to feel comfortable easing precautions are different for everyone, and recognizing that is an important step in understanding each person’s own process for making decisions.

“Everyone has challenges in their own way, and the challenges you face might not be the challenges that everyone else faces in light of the pandemic,” Breczinski said.

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Bemidji resident Elaine Beehler said she spends nearly every weekday at Adult Day Services and is frequently in charge of the craft activities. She said that clients recently made these paper butterflies to decorate the bulletin board near the entrance.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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