Broken Hill nursing home bracing for ‘worst-case scenario’ after four residents die from Covid

The Guardian, 14 April 2022

Nurses are being flown in from interstate amid staffing shortage after 30 positive cases reported, including inside the Alzheimer’s unit.

Nurses are being flown in from interstate to ease staffing shortages at a far western New South Wales aged care facility where four residents have died with Covid over the past fortnight.

The fourth death at St Anne’s in Broken Hill was confirmed on Wednesday after the outbreak first hit the facility in late March, with 30 people so far testing positive.

The chief executive of Southern Cross Care Broken Hill, Zoe Tonkin, said two of the residents who died after testing positive were believed to be recovering and had returned negative tests before their deaths.

She said the facility was now bracing for the “worst-case scenario” after a case in the Alzheimer’s unit was confirmed on Tuesday.

“We knew if it got in there it would whip through like a wildfire … that’s what’s happened in other aged care facilities,” Tonkin told Guardian Australia.

“We feared that if Covid was to get into this facility, in particular, that would be extremely hard to maintain. Our facility has shared bathrooms, bedrooms.”

Positive patients were being moved into an isolation wing and visitation had been limited to residents in palliative care.

The outbreak at St Anne’s, as well as throughout the broader community, had placed extra pressure on staff.

“We’ve had lots of support from our staff – I will never be able to repay them for their work,” Tonkin said.

‘I can’t leave her there to get Covid’: home care demand soars amid Australia’s aged care crisis
Read more
Ten nurses from across the country are being sent to the centre to make up for those isolating or furloughed.

The secretary of the Health Services Union NSW, Gerard Hayes, said the situation at St Anne’s was representative of what was happening across the state as aged care facilities struggle to find and keep staff as cases surge.

“There’s not enough staff in the system on a good day,” he said, calling on the federal government to take swifter action.

“It’s a perfect storm in relation to a great need and very little supply.”

He said the pandemic had “demoralised” workers and pushed them to their limits.

“It’s put them through physical and psychological stress that most workers should never have to deal with,” Hayes said.

Of the more than 25,400 aged care residents who have tested positive to Covid so far during the pandemic, 10,443 have been in NSW – the most of any state.

The deaths at St Anne’s would shock the community, the deputy mayor of Broken Hill, Jim Hickey, said.

“This is really upsetting for our community because we’re quite an ageing population here,” he said.

“It’s a tight-knit community and we all know each other, so it would affect a lot of people. Four deaths would affect a lot of people in Broken Hill, for sure.”

Until this year, Broken Hill had largely been spared major Covid outbreaks but the return of tourists after Sydney restrictions were lifted before Christmas has seen cases surge.

More than 550 people have tested positive in the Far West local health district over the past week.

“Although that’s great for our economy, it’s probably not great for our health service and if the health service becomes inundated here, where we’re fairly isolated, it could become a very big problem depending on how bad it gets,” Hickey said.

“It’s quite scary.”