A woman whose parents died in Melbourne’s last aged care outbreak has slammed the failure to prevent a repeat as “unbelievable”, while the chief executive of a national chain of care homes has described the federal government’s attempts to vaccinate staff as a “dog’s breakfast” and a “shitfight” .
The Melbourne outbreak has again exposed the failure to fully protect the sector, with two aged care facilities – Arcare Maidstone and Blue Cross Western Gardens – now working furiously to prevent further Covid-19 spread among staff and residents.
The outbreak has hit unvaccinated aged care workers, despite federal promises they would be vaccinated by March. It has also infected staff who were working across multiple aged care homes, a practice experts and unions have repeatedly warned against.
Liz Beardon’s parents both died in August after they were infected with Covid-19 at the Menarock Rosehill facility in the Melbourne suburb of Highett.
Beardon said she “couldn’t believe it” when she heard that cases had once again emerged in aged care.
She said quickly vaccinating aged care residents and staff, and keeping staff from working across facilities for the duration of the pandemic, should have been a given after what Victoria went through.
“So many people were affected by the outbreak last year, not only the residents and the care-givers but also their families who weren’t able to visit their loved ones in care for months on end,” she told the Guardian.
“And yet here we are again – I mean, it just is unbelievable. For once I would like one of these politicians to stand up and honestly answer questions about what the fuck they’ve been doing these past few months. Why aren’t they being more proactive? Why haven’t they been doing their job? Because lives are now at risk here.”
The vaccination of aged care staff has been beset by confusion and delay, despite the federal government classifying them in the highest priority cohort and promising they would be vaccinated within six weeks of the rollout’s commencement on 22 February.
Only incomplete and sporadicly-released data is available on the number of aged care staff currently vaccinated.
The industry, including peak body Leading Age Services Australia, is again voicing serious concerns about a staff vaccination strategy it describes as a frustrating and confusing “moving feast”.
One chief executive of a national aged care provider, who asked not to be named for fear of recrimination, said the federal government’s approach had been a “shitfight”.
“It’s a dog’s breakfast, it’s a bunfight, it’s a shitfight – it’s all of those things,” he told the Guardian.
“The entire aged care sector has been asking ‘why aren’t you doing the staff?’. It is just … dumb. It’s just plain dumb.
“Aged care residents are reasonably static. They remain where they are. As you and I both know, the virus is transmitted, it is carried. Staff are the ones moving in and out.”
The plans for staff vaccination have shifted repeatedly. Initially they were to be given the jab by in-reach teams separate to those sent in to vaccinate residents.
The in-reach program is run by private contractors, though the federal government has repeatedly refused to give even basic details about how much they are being paid.
When those in-reach teams for aged care staff failed to materialise, workers began using leftover Pfizer vaccinations not used on residents, which then left them in limbo when attempting to get their hands on a second dose.
The government promised to set up pop-up vaccination hubs for aged care workers, which did not eventuate for months and, even now, have been established in only three of a promised 13 locations, all of which are in Sydney.
Now, the government is telling aged care staff to secure their own vaccinations, either from their general practitioner, from a state-run or commonwealth-run vaccination hub, or through the Sydney pop-up hubs. They can also choose to wait for in-reach teams.
The chief executive of Leading Age Services Australia, Sean Rooney, told the Guardian it was reasonable to ask how the vaccine rollout for staff was so far behind, given they were supposed to be part of phase 1a.
“With staff, it’s been a moving feast,” he said. “We were told upfront that staff and residents were a priority.
“They were front of the queue. But where we are today, staff have been left to find their own path, rather than having in-reach teams coming into the homes to vaccinate the staff.”
Rooney said the sector had asked the government for clear data on staff vaccinations, only to be told that it was not yet ready to be released.
“To be honest, I can’t tell you how many workers are vaccinated, because the government is not keeping a record of it. We’ve asked them for that and they say ‘it’s a work in progress’,” Rooney said.
“I can’t tell you right now, at a state level of a national level, how many staff are vaccinated.”
The health minister, Greg Hunt, flagged on Monday that he had asked the medical expert panel to consider whether vaccinations for aged care workers should be made mandatory.
Hunt also said the state government had the power to stop staff working across multiple sites using public health orders, but noted it was only an issue for a minority of workers in Victoria.
He also revealed that 85% of residents had taken up the vaccine and 99% had been offered it. Just six facilities nationwide had not had their first dose, he said.
Beardon gave evidence to the royal commission into aged care about her experience, and has called for reform in the aged care system following the death of her parents to prevent similar situations from happening again.
“If what we went through in Victoria last year isn’t going to be the catalyst for change, what will be?” she said.
“I feel for those going through what my family went through last year. I have been trying to effect change. What more needs to happen? How many more lives need to be affected? How many more lives need to be lost?”