A woman whose parents died in Melbourne’s latest elder care outbreak described the failure to prevent a recurrence as “incredible”, while the director of a national chain of care homes described the federal government’s attempts to vaccinate staff as a “dog’s breakfast” has described. and a “shit fight”.
The Melbourne outbreak has again shown that the sector is not fully protected, with two aged care facilities – Arcare Maidstone and Blue Cross Western Gardens – now working furiously to prevent further spread of Covid-19 to staff and residents.
The outbreak has affected unvaccinated aged care workers, despite federal promises they would be vaccinated in March. It has also infected employees who worked in multiple retirement homes, a practice that experts and unions have repeatedly warned against.
Liz Beardon’s parents both died in August after being infected with Covid-19 at the Menarock Rosehill facility in the Melbourne suburb of Highett.
Beardon said she “couldn’t believe it” when she learned that cases had re-emerged in the aged care sector.
She said swiftly vaccinating residents and aged care staff and preventing staff from working in different facilities during the pandemic should have been a given after what Victoria has been through.
“So many people were affected by the outbreak last year, not only residents and carers but also their families who were unable to visit their loved ones in care for months,” she told the Guardian.
“And yet here we are again – I mean, it’s just unbelievable. For once, I would like one of these politicians to stand up and answer questions honestly about what the hell they’ve been up to for the past few months. Why aren’t they more proactive? Why haven’t they done their job? Because now lives are at stake here.”
The vaccination of aged care workers has been plagued by confusion and delay, despite the federal government putting them in the highest priority and promising that they would be vaccinated within six weeks of the start of the February 22 rollout.
Only incomplete and sporadically released data are available on the number of aged care workers currently vaccinated.
The industry, including top agency Leading Age Services Australia, is again expressing serious concerns over a staff vaccination strategy it describes as a frustrating and confusing “moving party”.
A director of a national healthcare provider, who declined to be named for fear of accusations, said the federal government’s approach had been a “shit fight.”
“It’s a dog’s breakfast, it’s a bunfight, it’s a shitfight — it’s all those things,” he told the Guardian.
“The whole aged care industry is wondering ‘why don’t you staff it?’ It’s just… stupid. It’s just stupid.
“Residents of elderly care are fairly static. They stay where they are. As you and I both know, the virus is transmitted, carried. It’s the staff coming in and out.”
Plans for staff vaccination have been repeatedly shifted. Initially, they would get the jab from in-reach teams separate from those sent to vaccinate residents.
The in-reach program is run by private contractors, although the federal government has repeatedly refused to give even basic details about how much they are paid.
When those aged care teams failed to show up, workers began using leftover Pfizer vaccinations that weren’t being used on residents, leaving them in limbo as they tried to get their hands on a second dose.
The government promised to set up pop-up vaccination centers for aged care workers, which has not happened for months and even now only in three of the promised 13 sites, all of which are in Sydney.
Now the government is telling aged care staff to get their own vaccinations, either from their GP, at a state or Commonwealth-run vaccination center, or through the pop-up hubs in Sydney. They can also choose to wait for teams that are in range.
Leading Age Services Australia’s chief executive, Sean Rooney, told the Guardian it was reasonable to ask how the vaccine roll-out to staff was lagging so far, as they were supposed to be part of Phase 1a.
“It was a moving party with the staff,” he said. “We were told in advance that the staff and residents had priority.
“They were first in line. But where we are now, the staff has been left to find their own way, rather than teams coming within range to vaccinate the staff.”
Rooney said the sector had asked the government for clear data on staff vaccinations, but was told it was not ready to be released.
“To be honest, I can’t tell you how many employees have been vaccinated because the government doesn’t keep a record of this. We asked them that and they say ‘it’s a work in progress,’ said Rooney.
“I can’t tell you now, at a state or national level, how many employees have been vaccinated.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt noted Monday that he had asked the panel of medical experts to consider whether vaccinations for aged care workers should be made mandatory.
Hunt also said the state government had the power to prevent staff from working in multiple locations using public health regulations, but noted that this was only a problem for a minority of workers in Victoria.
He also revealed that 85% of residents had taken the vaccine and 99% had been offered it. Only six facilities nationwide had not had their first dose, he said.
Beardon has testified to the Royal Commission on Elderly Care of her experience and has called for reform of the aged care system following the death of her parents to prevent similar situations from happening again.
“If what we went through last year in Victoria won’t be the catalyst for change, then what will?” she said.
“I feel for those who went through what my family went through last year. I have tried to bring about change. What else needs to be done? How many lives are left to be affected? How many lives still have to be lost? ”