Aged-care Covid toll sparks probe into safeguards

The Australian, 8 February 2023

Nearly one-third of Covid-19 deaths during the nation’s latest wave have occurred in aged-care residential facilities, triggering the federal government to seek expert advice on how to better protect elderly residents during future waves.

Health Minister Mark Butler on Wednesday revealed about 2600 Australians had died over the past four months, with nearly 800 fatalities in aged care.

But he said the nation’s mortality rate of aged-care residents had reduced dramatically over the course of the pandemic, as governments and providers improved practices to prevent rapid transmission in care facilities.

According to the latest figures from late October to now, about one in 40 Covid cases in aged care ended up dying, which is compared to one in 30 resident cases over the course of last year.

Health advice has estimated that up to four million people have been infected with Covid over the summer period – which is four times the number of confirmed cases according to state and territory records.

Mr Butler said the government was “getting better” at protecting the nation’s most vulnerable – through antivirals, higher vaccination rates and better sanitation protocols – but conceded 800 deaths in a few months was a “devastating” tragedy.

“We are getting better at protecting aged-care residents – the most frail, the most vulnerable – from the worst impacts of Covid,” Mr Butler said.

“(Chief medical officer) Professor (Paul) Kelly talked about the deployment of antivirals. But there’s no question that more than 800 deaths in a few months in aged care is a devastating tragedy. And I want to make sure that we learn the lessons of that, and if there are ways in which we can improve protections in aged care, we will do that.”

The latest figures come as Aged Care Minister Annika Wells seeks advice from Professor Kelly and the Aged Care Advisory Group to improve protections for the elderly.

Mr Butler ruled out any potential for future lockdowns, arguing they were too damaging on the mental and physical health of aged-care residents.

He also stood firm against calls to reverse Labor’s decision to fund a 15 per cent wage rise increase for around 330,000 workers in the sector over two years, arguing the government’s policy struck the right balance.

Amid ongoing staffing shortages in the sector, Health Service Union boss Gerard Hayes called for Labor to deliver the wage rise in full this year.

Mr Hayes said three-quarters of aged-care workers would leave the sector next year because they could get a higher paying job in the retail or hospitality sector.