What was Scott Morrison’s plan when he decided Australians should “live with Covid”? Did he give any thought to the impact this would have on older people living in aged care homes? Sarah Russell reports on the plight of our most vulnerable.
Many aged care homes are not designed to cope with an airborne virus. Without good ventilation, Covid has spread like wildfire in aged care homes. On December 3, there were 28 aged care homes with an outbreak. By Christmas Eve, the number of outbreaks had increased to 105. By 7 January, this number had more than quadrupled to 495.
Michael Pascoe predicts that every aged care home outside of Western Australia will be experiencing a Covid outbreak in a little over two weeks.
So what went wrong?
RATs the key
The first failure involves Rapid Antigen Tests. Nearly five months ago, on 15 August, Minister Hunt announced RATs would be available to aged care homes. “We anticipate that regular use of RAT to screen aged care employees and visitors will provide much greater reassurance,” he said.
Rapid tests are key to ensuring the safety of both residents and staff. A staff testing positive has caused many of the current lockdowns. This could have been avoided if, since August, all staff had taken a rapid antigen test before each shift. While taking a test may be inconvenient and time consuming, it is infinitely preferable to putting residents and families through the trauma of a lockdown.
However, like many of Minister for Aged Care Greg Hunt’s announcements and re-announcements, he failed to deliver. According to recent data, only 668 of the 2704 private aged care homes had received rapid antigen tests by 7 January. Once again, this is too little and far too late.
Another key failure is the “strollout” of vaccine boosters to residents. Two months ago, on 8 November, Minister Hunt announced the beginning of the booster program in aged care homes.
Rather than rely on the existing structures that successfully administer the annual flu booster shot to residents – with local GPs visiting aged care homes – the federal government outsourced the Covid booster rollout to private companies, such as Aspen Medical. And then Aspen Medical, took holidays over the Christmas break.
The trill of the Hunt
About 1,000 aged care homes are yet to receive coronavirus vaccine booster shots. Despite this failure, Minister Hunt still managed a positive spin, by saying the vaccination program was ahead of schedule. This indicates Minister Hunt did not recognise the importance of residents being fully vaccinated.
In contrast to federally operated private aged care homes, residents in Victorian operated aged care homes received their boosters before Christmas. It is also worth noting that no resident has died of Covid in a Victorian-operated aged care home. In contrast, 793 residents have died of Covid in private homes in Victoria.
The most recent data also highlights the fact that some aged care homes have had a significant increase in residents testing positive over the past fortnight, while others have been able to contain the spread. This suggests some homes have a good ‘pandemic plan’ and others don’t.
In addition, several aged care homes have had numerous outbreaks while others have had none. Bupa Greenacre (NSW), for example, is experiencing its third outbreak, with 44 residents currently having Covid. On 24 December, no resident at Bupa Greenacre had Covid.
Given the fact that Bupa’s aged care homes have repeatedly failed to meet minimum health and safety standards, has the regulator assessed the infection control protocols and staffing levels at Bupa Greenacre? Not taking such a step seems a most basic dereliction of duty from a regulator.
Each outbreak has heartbreaking consequences. Aged care homes go into lockdown, preventing families from visiting their loved ones. At the moment, almost 15% of NSW aged care centres are in lockdown due to a staff member, not a resident, testing positive.
In some homes, residents are confined to their rooms. This is not only profoundly damaging to their mental and physical wellbeing, but is also potentially illegal.
Throughout this pandemic, the federal government has allowed each aged care home to make its own rules about who can and can’t visit, irrespective of the public health orders. Consistent with the Aged Care Roadmap, the federal government has a “lighter touch” approach – treating each aged care home as an individual business.
With a chronic shortage of staff in many aged care homes, families are more concerned residents will die of neglect than Covid. Who helps residents eat their meals, ensures they drink enough, walks them to the toilet and provides social stimulation?
The workforce surge that wasn’t
The federal government promised a “surge workforce” would be available when staff were furloughed. However according to Paul Sadler, CEO of Aged and Community Services, this surge workforce “never eventuated” despite the government giving $7.23m to Mable and $45m to Aspen Medical to provide a “surge workforce”.
Minister Hunt and Minister for Aged Care Services Senator, Richard Colbeck, must be held to account for the numerous preventable tragedies that have occurred in the aged care sector during the pandemic. Their failure to develop a specific pandemic plan for aged care has had dire consequences for many older people over the past two years.
Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher who specialises in qualitative research. She has been the Principal Researcher at Research Matters since 1999. She is also the Director, Aged Care Matters. She believes the aged care system requires greater scrutiny, accountability and transparency.