Thousands of residents infected as aged care sector hits ‘crisis’

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The vast majority of the 500 aged care homes hit by active COVID-19 outbreaks have not received an infection control spot check from the regulator in the past six months, as peak bodies warn isolation rules are forcing residents into “endless lockdowns” and weeks confined to their rooms.

There are now almost 3000 active cases in aged care residents across Australia, including more than 1200 in NSW, double the number last Friday.

Only 5 per cent of aged care homes with COVID-19 outbreaks have received a recent infection control check. Credit:Virginia Star

Aged and Community Services Australia CEO Paul Sadler said with soaring Omicron infections he expected at least 1000 aged care homes nationally, or almost half of all facilities, will be battling an outbreak by Friday.

“We are dealing with an acute crisis on top of systemic problems. Not having on-site checks does raise the possibility that some homes have poor infection control and are not being picked up,” Mr Sadler said.

“But right now we have staff isolated, leaving the sector and homes that have severely depleted rapid test supplies and PPE shortages.”

Former premier and CEO of HammondCare Mike Baird said the ADF could be recruited to help aged care which is facing a “perfect storm” with thousands of furloughed staff and workers on holiday leave across the sector.

“The combination of staff off and rising infections is creating an unprecedented challenge and at this stage we are open to any support, including from the ADF,” Mr Baird said.

Data from the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, provided to the Herald, showed of the 495 aged care facilities with an active outbreak, only 33 have had an on-site infection control spot check visit in the past six months, with 27 of those checks occurring in NSW.

Meanwhile, aged care experts say strict 14-day isolation rules for residents were unsustainable and mandated visitor policies needed to be urgently implemented to support a depleted workforce and prevent the deterioration in residents’ mental health.

Guidelines published by the NSW government’s Clinical Excellence Commission show residents that have close, face-to-face contact for longer than 15 minutes with a positive case are classified as high risk and need to isolate for 14 days.

“With Omicron so widespread we need guidelines, approved by national cabinet, that balance infection control and the rights of older people to mix with other residents, friends and family in the middle of outbreaks,” Mr Sadler said.

“It’s not realistic to keep older people locked in rooms for extended periods. We are just getting these rolling, never-ending lockdowns.”

Frustrated family members said they did not understand why local public health units locked down aged care facilities for 14 days, when household contacts only needed to isolate for one week.

Joe Garai said his 73-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, was upset and lost weight in lockdown after a COVID-19 exposure at St Elizabeth’s Home at Dean Park, near Blacktown.

Communication from the facility, which Mr Garai said had been very good, indicated by the end of the lockdown only staff had tested positive.

“My mum is double vaccinated, she never had symptoms, never tested positive to COVID, the staff are all wearing full PPE, and she was still locked in her room … the public health units need to have a bit of a commonsense approach,” he said.

Daniel Virgili, who travelled from London to Sydney to find his mother was in lockdown, said he was seeking answers from Willowood at Chatswood about when her isolation would end, as it had exceeded 14 days.

“This has to stop, it’s cruel on her,” he said in a text message to management on Wednesday, seen by the Herald. Willowood’s operator, Columbia aged care, was approached for comment.

In a statement, NSW Health said it was reviewing procedures in high-risk settings, such as aged care facilities, and was “evaluating whether it is appropriate to implement a reduced isolation time in these settings”.

Targeted infection control spot checks were introduced by the federal regulator in March 2020. Most homes with outbreaks – 444 out of 495 – had received a visit since the pandemic began, but only 5 per cent of these checks were performed since July last year.

Information provided on the regulator’s website states: “The commission will, should it be necessary, stand up targeted spot checks or undertake other regulatory activities to respond rapidly if there is a heightened risk of community transmission that may impact aged care services.”

Providers also say they are spending tens of thousands of dollars on rapid tests after deliveries from the federal government were delayed.

In an email sent by Ashfield Baptist Homes to families, the provider said staff “continue to do a RAT before each shift which we are now sourcing at our own cost”.

“An order of 5000 kits which lasts under a week cost $80,000. Therefore, we will be unable to provide RATs for any family members, now or in the future, unless there is a policy change. We will keep all families advised,” the email, seen by the Herald, said.

Mr Sadler said some providers are spending up to $100,000 each month procuring tests.

The federal Department of Health said in a statement that it was prioritising deliveries of PPE and RATs to facilities with an exposure.

“Orders are processed based on urgency,” it said. “If a facility has an outbreak, it can source its own commercial supply and claim the cost.”

More than 30 homes in NSW have had multiple outbreaks during the pandemic, including two facilities now in their fourth and fifth lockdowns.

Aged care researcher and advocate Dr Sarah Russell said there was an urgent need to assess infection controls.

“Not taking such a step seems a most basic dereliction of duty from a regulator,” she said.

However, a spokesperson for the commission said it conducted an infection control-specific assessment contact program in June, August and December last year and made over 1790 calls to NSW services specifically to discuss infection prevention and control.

“COVID-19 is very widespread across aged care homes, in the context of the current situation we are in crisis,” Mr Sadler said. “In the UK the aged care commission monitors staff availability and provides reports on key challenges facing the sector. We see no such comments from the regulator in Australia.”

Government figures provided this week showed that 1700 out of 2700 federally funded aged care services around the country had been visited by medical firms employed by Canberra to provide a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

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