New vaccination data of nursing home staff shows patchy coverage across Australia

The Australian, 23 August 2021

Nursing homes in northern NSW and the Margaret River in Western Australia been outed as having the nation’s lowest staff vaccination rates.

Five aged-care centres in the Moree and Narrabri area of NSW have an average vaccination rate of 20-29 per cent, new figures from Operation Covid Shield show, while another five in the Margaret River region have the same low percentage.

The Richmond Valley in far northern NSW has a dozen nursing homes where the average coverage is between 30-39 per cent, the same as nine homes in the Kempsey region further south. The Coffs Harbour area, with 14 centres, averages less than 50 per cent coverage.

With just over three weeks ­before the national cabinet-­imposed September 17 deadline for all workers in residential aged-care homes to be vaccinated as a condition of work, there are more than 140 centres across Australia in areas where the average vaccination coverage remains lower than 50 per cent.

These range from the Granite Belt in southern Queensland to Burnie in Tasmania to more than 50 homes in the eastern and northern suburbs of Perth.

Operation Covid Shield is from Monday publishing weekly vaccination data for all Australian nursing homes on the Health ­Department website in a concerted effort to pressure providers to accelerate the rollout.

Operation Covid Shield co-­ordinator Lieutenant General John Frewen said the publication of individual home vaccination rates “will be an effective tool in working with aged-care providers to ensure the residential aged-care workforce gets a jab by the middle of September”.

We will continue to pursue opportunities to fast-track the vaccination program and enable residential aged-care workers to receive a vaccine by 17 September,” General Frewen said.

The federal government in February committed to fully vaccinating aged-care staff alongside residents within six weeks. But staff were omitted from the subsequent rollout.

With low vaccination rates in a sector where almost 700 residents died from Covid last year due to infected workers bringing the virus into centres, national cabinet moved on June 28 to make a first dose mandatory by September 17 as a condition of work.

Despite this, about 100,000 of the 278,000 nursing-home workers were yet to receive a first jab as of late last week.

Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said the September 17 deadline threatened to create a “major workforce crisis within the aged-care community”.

“We support vaccination, but it’s how you go about it. This is a workforce with low attraction and retention rates, and putting mandatory vaccination on top of that is a problem,” Mr Hayes said.

“We’ve said to the government from day one that they are mandating vaccination in a workforce with high levels of vaccine hesitancy, but also there are a lot of workers who’ve told us they want to be vaccinated but don’t have ­access to one.”

Provider advocate Pat Sparrow, chief executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, said the whole issue could have been avoided if the government had delivered what it promised earlier in the year.