COVID placing immense pressure on local aged care providers

Local aged care centres are feeling immense pressure due to the latest COVID-19 outbreak with dozens of staff forced into isolation and centres required to source their own supplies to test residents and staff.

CEO at Peninsula Villages Colin Osborne said approximately 12 per cent of the local aged care service’s staff have had to isolate.

“Our first staff member tested positive between Christmas and New Year with most of our staff then contracting COVID-19 as a result of community contact – not from within work,” he said.

“We have had two instances where we think a staff member has contracted COVID-19 from exposure to a work colleague.

“In total, during this wave, we have had approximately 40 staff that have been impacted and have had to isolate under the mandatory requirements.

“As of [January 18], we have approximately 20 staff that are waiting to come back to work – half of those have gone through their isolation period and have now returned to work.

“In order to continue to minimise the risk to our residents, our staff are continuing to complete a rapid antigen test before coming into work each day and are wearing personal protective equipment.”

Osborne said two residents have contracted COVID-19 during the recent outbreak.

“One resident has completely recovered whilst the other is still recovering,” Osborne said.

“When a resident tests positive to COVID-19, we relocate them to another building immediately adjacent to one our nursing homes … it’s a separated area.

“They are then looked after by dedicated staff until their isolation finishes before being moved back into their locations in the nursing home.”

Peninsula Villages have been able to source RATs and PPE through the National Medical Stockpile and through independent commercial arrangements but Osborne said more needs to be done.

“The most important thing … is for the entire aged care sector to get funding levels from government services to a reasonable level,” he said.

“This will help provide pay rates for staff in aged care that are competitive to the acute health care centre.

“This is driven by the fact that funding provided by the Federal Government is not sufficient to support levels of staffing that we would aspire to have, nor does it support us being able to have the proportion of highly qualified staff that we would want to have.

“At the present time in Australia, more than 50 per cent of organisations like Peninsula Villages are actually running at a loss … and that proportion has gone up in the past 18 months from just under 30 per cent, to now 57 per cent.

“The costs of aged care services are escalating rapidly, and the funding is simply not keeping pace.”

It’s a story that is mirrored across the Peninsula, with BlueWave Living facing similar staffing shortages.

“We have had over a dozen staff test positive to COVID in the current Omicron outbreak to date, with most of those since recovered and cleared,” CEO of BlueWave Living Matthew Downie said.

“Currently there are two staff who are positive in isolation, with a third symptomatic who is attending for a PCR test.

“So, we have three staff currently in isolation.

“This can obviously change daily with the current high numbers of cases in the community.

“We have had zero cases of residents contracting COVID.

“All staff have increased PPE requirements, including N95 masks and face shields, and other measures in place to reduce risk – such as taking breaks separately from one another when they are not wearing masks whilst consuming food.

“We are also screening staff with Rapid Tests.”

Downie said the Woy Woy organisation requires support around access to testing for residents and staff.

“Sometime between Christmas and New Year, the residential aged Care sector was cut off from access to PCR testing, and we were directed to rely on rapid test kits,” Downie said.

“This has left our elders in care at risk and exposed by removing the ability to test and screen.

“We have not been provided with any rapid test kits from the Commonwealth (nor NSW Health) to facilitate this change.

“Our remaining stock of rapid tests which we purchased late last year, is diminishing.

“We did place orders through multiple suppliers late last year to ensure a continued supply of rapid tests.

“We were due to receive additional stock by last Friday, however have since been advised by our supplier that the stock has been seconded by the Commonwealth, and so we will not be receiving.

“Our other supplier cannot currently confirm when our other order in place with them will be delivered.

“We have also sought and applied for stock through the Commonwealth directly, however to date have not had a reply, nor any stock provided.

“I do find it extraordinary that the Commonwealth has clearly failed to support residential aged care through this latest outbreak and appear to be very under-resourced despite having two years plus of COVID to prepare for such an outbreak.”

Both centres are currently in lockdown per direction from the Public Health Unit due to the high rates of COVID-19 in the community, with end-of-life visitations allowed as an exemption.

“This is not the first time our residents have been in lock down, and we have other measures in place for our residents to stay in contact with loved ones outside the facility, such as FaceTime/Zoom type interactions via tablets,” Downie said.

“We are very appreciative of the support from families during this time.”

“[The] restrictions on visitations from family members to residents has caused some distress and anxiety for some residents and where that is the case, we are facilitating FaceTime calls and Zoom visits which the residents enjoy and the take up of that opportunity by relatives has been very high,” Osborne said.

A Health Services Union (HSU) member survey indicated 90 per cent of Australian aged care facilities were experiencing understaffing and 84 per cent reported experiencing excessive workloads.

HSU National President, Gerard Hayes, said the sector is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis and requires immediate resistance.

“The Morrison Government comprehensively failed to plan before allowing Omicron to rip through the community and modestly paid workers, and residents in aged care facilities who built this country, are paying the price,” Hayes said.

“There are active outbreaks in almost 500 aged care facilities across the country.

“Yet workers can’t access RATs, they can’t access PPE.

“They are on the front line with very little protection.

“Not only are staff at risk but vulnerable residents are at a heightened risk of severe disease or death.

“The Morrison Government has effectively abandoned the sector under the premise of living with the virus.”

On Wednesday, the HSU also called on the Prime Minister to fund a ‘home guard’ style system which would allow members of the public to provide support to the overwhelmed sector.

The emergency initiative, similar to the Volunteer Defence Corps deployed during World War II, aims to alleviate pressure on staff.

The HSU has also called for RATs to be made free and available to all and the sourcing of adequate Personal Protective Equipment for all workers to be made a priority.

“Conditions for both staff and residents are deteriorating rapidly as COVID cases in aged care continue to rise,” Hayes said.

“It is an unmitigated catastrophe.

“The Prime Minister could help fix this crisis now by paying everyday Australians to provide support to aged care facilities in roles which don’t require training such as food delivery.

“Australians could become ‘community angels’, helping facilities in dire need of assistance, particularly in regional and remote areas.”

The news comes as embattled aged care providers and unions now call on the Federal Government to deploy the Australian Defence Force to assist staff on the ground and provide an additional direct payment to staff.

Maisy Rae