‘My heart sank’: Covid returns to Newmarch House as aged care sector fears new crisis

  • Published January 4, 2022

The Guardian, 4 January 2022

A positive Covid case has been recorded at the Newmarch House aged care home in Sydney, where 19 people died during an outbreak in 2020, amid growing concern at the strain on the sector’s workforce.

As of Monday, there were 1,180 active Covid-19 cases in aged care homes across Australia, with more than 550 each in New South Wales and Victoria.

In the past seven days, the NSW health department has reported the deaths of eight aged care home residents as a result of coronavirus infections acquired inside the facilities. Federal government data suggests a rise in deaths in aged care has coincided with the move by most states to relax restrictions.

In 2021 91 people died with Covid in aged care across Australia up to 22 October. By 17 December that figure had more than doubled to 206.

At the same time the workforce in NSW, which has experienced record-breaking case numbers, has come under increasing pressure.

The Guardian spoke to three aged care workers in the state, all of whom did not wish to be named out of concern for their employment situation.

Those in metropolitan areas described a feeling of “desperation” and burnout, with workers in some facilities pulling 16-hour shifts to cover gaps in the workforce and nearby hospitals refusing to take new Covid-positive patients unless “absolutely necessary”.

One worker at a regional facility in the state’s north said six staff had quit due to low pay and burnout, leaving them woefully unprepared in the event of an outbreak.

“I think we’re going to get Covid in the facility,” they said. “I think we’re going to lose more staff. I think the current staff who are willing to stay are going to burn out and get sick themselves. I think we’re going into a state of disaster. People will die.”

On Sunday the operator of Newmarch, Anglicare, notified residents’ families that a staff member had tested positive for the virus after a “community exposure”.

Newmarch said another member of staff and a resident had been identified as close contacts, but that no further positive cases had been identified as yet.

“Our highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of residents and staff, while providing the best possible care to residents in the home,” Newmarch said in its email to the families.

“As a further precaution, PCR testing of [the] staff and residents will take place today.”

The case has put the families of residents on high alert, prompting memories of the devastating outbreak in which 37 residents tested positive and 19 died after a staff member worked a shift while infectious in April 2020.

At the time it was the deadliest outbreak of the pandemic in Australia.

“My heart sank, it really did,” Elizabeth Lane, whose mother is a resident at Newmarch, told the Guardian. “My mum is at the end of life and the idea that there could be another outbreak and I wouldn’t be able to see her or be with her if she passed away, nothing would break my heart more.

“I don’t know if people realise the impact of what happened on the residents there, the decline in a lot of the older people. Because of the lockdown and everything that has happened, you go in there and the atmosphere is just so quiet.”

Gerard Hayes, the national president of the Health Services Union, said he believed the situation was going to get “dramatically worse” around the country over the next few weeks.

“I would usually have an optimistic view that if we apply this or apply that, we can manage through. I don’t have an answer this time,” Hayes said. “This problem manifested itself some time ago [and] we chose to do very little about it.

“Both the government and opposition have been talking a big game on aged care until it’s come to now. What are [the] Labor and Liberal [parties] going to do for the people who actually built this country, who put us in a position we are in today?

“I need answers – from both sides of government. At the moment all I’m hearing about in the federal sphere is nuclear submarines and bullet trains.”

Hayes said the low pay in the industry, with a base rate of $23 an hour, was not enough to attract and keep new workers under normal conditions, let alone during a time of crisis.

Paul Sadler, the chief executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, said pay was one of a number of issues that had not been addressed since the royal commission and the first wave of the pandemic.

“What we are seeing now is federal and state governments warning all businesses they could be losing 10 to 25% of their staff, to a period of time when they’re Covid-positive and can’t come into work,” Sadler said.

“I think our members feel like it’s an impossible situation on a daily basis for the moment. They’re trying to balance the risk; they’re trying to enable residents to have the best life possible; they’re trying to keep out a deadly disease; they’re trying to manage staff rosters when there’s immense pressure on the availability of staff.”

“It’s the toughest time aged care services have ever been through.”

A spokesperson for the federal health department said it was working closely with states and territories to provide surge workforce support when needed.

“As soon as the department is notified of a case in an aged care worker or resident, a case manager will be appointed to support the facility,” the spokesperson said. “This includes facilitating access to commonwealth programs and supports such as PPE and surge workforce.

“In addition, surge workforce support continues to be provided to supplement aged care providers’ strategies. This includes access to dedicated nursing staff and support from agency workers, as well as agreements with private hospitals to provide support if states seek to utilise this resource.”

The federal government changed guidelines on Saturday to allow employees who are close contacts to return to work earlier from isolation where a lack of staff was having a “high impact” on services.

A national cabinet meeting on Wednesday is expected to address the issue of staffing in aged care.