Covid havoc in aged-care homes as cases, deaths surge

  • Published December 13, 2022

The Australian, 13 December 2022

Covid has again surged through aged care homes, with weekly deaths in residential facilities eight times higher than at the end of the previous wave, as Health Minister Mark Butler handed down a new plan to move the nation’s health settings away from “Covid-19 exceptionalism”.

Latest Department of Health figures on Monday showed new infections rose by more than 3000 cases in nursing homes last week, while the death toll hit 63.

The rise represents the highest weekly case numbers in residential facilities since Covid’s rampant spread last winter, and has sparked fears among aged care residents, families, nurses and staff members of another holiday period ruined by the virus.

With aged care residents and their loved ones facing a third disrupted Christmas, the federal government unveiled its national Covid strategy limiting access to PCR testing by requiring GP referrals.

The commonwealth also ended its 50-50 funding agreement with the states for Covid support for public hospitals, sparking outrage from the Australian Medical Association which said the move was “bewildering” and warned the health system would “fall even further down the rabbit hole”.

While the pace of new infections and deaths remained short of the peak reached during winter, new weekly cases in residential aged care facilities have increased five times since transmissions began rising in early October, with an eightfold increase in deaths over the same time period, according to Department of Health figures.

Aged and Community Care Providers Association chief executive Tom Symondson said residential aged care facilities were unable to “live with the virus” and a lack of mandated Covid-19 restrictions was making it difficult for facilities to navigate new waves.

Mr Symondson acknowledged there was little public appetite for new restrictions, but called for the federal government to provide more robust guidelines to help the sector deal with high caseloads.

The peak body also welcomed the commonwealth’s commitment to continue funding support for aged care homes experiencing an outbreak, which was previously due to expire at the end of the year.

“Each state has its own guidance and one of the things we want is national guidance,” Mr Symondson said. “It is confusing to see that guidance changes from one state to the next, and it’s always just ‘advisory’ now and that forces the aged care provider to navigate those rules.

“We need to remind people that this has not ended. We need more public messaging and more reminders for people not to go into an aged care home if they feel unwell.”

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said the government had moved quickly to distribute extra personal protective equipment, pathology and rapid antigen tests and financial support for Covid-affected homes. About 84 per cent of eligible aged care residents have received a fourth dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

“The Albanese government has moved quickly to prepare for Covid waves, bolstering our health and aged care systems to protect vulnerable older Australians during the festive season,” Ms Wells said.

Older Persons Advocacy Network chief executive Craig Gear said the recent spike in cases and deaths “shows that despite being a few years into the pandemic we can’t take our eye off the ball, as older people are the most adversely affected by Covid.”

Mr Gear said the upcoming festive season would be a challenge for facilities to maintain Covid-safe practices, with staff already stretched on holidays or furloughed from work. “Families need to be respectful that during this time of year there is pressure on providers with the numbers coming into homes,” Mr Gear said.

“Visits might need to be staged rather than having one large family gathering to allow infection prevention measures to work.

Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said care workers were operating in a “heightened environment” where the threat of a Covid outbreak was a constant concern.

“Our members know their job deals with life and death, and they work hard to make life as safe and comfortable for people as they can,” Mr Hayes said. “They are still navigating their workplaces in PPE because they know the consequences and are willing to do it for those they care for.”

As Covid continues to menace the aged care sector, Mr Butler said Australia was transitioning out of the “emergency phase” of the pandemic and towards a new normal. The strategy laid out a framework for Australia to manage Covid like other respiratory viruses, and forecast the new waves to spread through the community regularly for at least the next two years.

Mr Butler said the plan struck “the right balance” between protecting vulnerable Australians and the integrity of the hospital system while emerging safely out of the pandemic.

“The key priorities and key principles of those documents agreed by the national cabinet will firstly … protect vulnerable and at-risk members of the community, particularly from severe disease and death,” he said. “Secondly, (they) ensure that our health system and hospital system have the capacity to respond to future waves of Covid. And thirdly, to provide effective information and access by the community to vaccines and treatments.