Jun. 7—While COVID-19 remains a public health threat, the seven Southwest Missouri senior centers will fully reopen beginning July 12, the Area Agency on Aging, Region X, announced Monday morning.
The decision to open the centers — located in Joplin, Webb City, Carl Junction, Carthage, Neosho, Lamar and Noel — was based on a combination of declining regional COVID-19 cases overall paired with increasing regional percentages of people receiving their vaccinations, said Jennifer Shotwell, CEO of the agency.
But it wasn't an easy decision to make, she said.
"Closing during the shutdown (in March 2020) was probably the easiest decision that we've made through all of this," Shotwell said. "Opening back up and settling on a date to do so has been extremely difficult, simply because we've been having to monitor the vaccines when they became widely available, watching the vaccination rates, watching the COVID rates on a month-to-month basis — also trying to get our staff vaccinated, our homebound clients vaccinated, our volunteers vaccinated. We've also had to deal with issues in our supply chain due to (the pandemic): the toilet paper shortage, we went through a cardboard box shortage, a chicken shortage and now we're expecting a beef shortage."
Soft openings were initiated in early May with hot meals served on Tuesdays and Thursdays and, beginning this month, on Wednesdays, to area seniors 60 and older.
Beginning Monday, July 12, each center will resume full activities — pool, bingo, lunch, cards, puzzles, exercise classes and more — Monday through Friday, with no limitations on capacity. This is something area seniors have waited more than a year to see, Shotwell said.
But neither the agency nor the centers they oversee are throwing caution to the wind with this announcement. Far from it, she added.
"We still want to try to educate (area residents) that we are not a 100% safe place to be," she said. "We do our utmost to follow strict sanitation guidelines, but we can't guarantee that (the centers) will be a safe place. I don't want to give people a false sense of security saying that it is completely safe."
While AAA or senior center officials can't mandate mask usage among visitors, they will adhere to all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when it comes to COVID-19, and they encourage unvaccinated patrons to still wear their masks and to remain distanced from others. Shotwell said easily accessible sanitation stations will remain at all area centers. And should a visiting patron or staff member come down with COVID-19, that center will be closed for a period of time without notice.
"We want to keep our staff and patrons as safe as possible," Shotwell said, because "we're in the unknown now. I know folks are ready to get back, and so are we, but we want everybody to be safe. We're not out of the woods yet."
Perhaps because it's been seniors who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic since it reached American shores early last year, vaccinations among Missouri seniors have been exemplary, Shotwell said. According to the state Department of Health and Senior Services, Missouri's senior citizens are, by far, the most vaccinated age group found anywhere in the state. They are:
—Ages 55-64: 51.3% vaccinated.
—Ages 65-74: 69.9% vaccinated.
—Ages 75-84: 71.5% vaccinated.
—Ages 85-plus: 63.7% vaccinated.
Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.