Only one in five aged care homes close to vaccinating all staff against Covid as deadline looms

The Guardian, 24 August 2021

A government mandate for workers in the aged care sector is due to come in to force in three weeks, but some centres are yet to have 10% of staff given one dose

Hundreds of aged care homes are lagging behind in their efforts to vaccinate workers, with some centres vaccinating less than 10% of their staff with a single dose, and almost 600 centres yet to reach the 50% mark.

Just three weeks before a vaccine mandate for the aged care sector is due to come into force, a Guardian Australia analysis of data released by the federal health department shows just 551 centres – or 19% – of aged care homes have vaccinated more than 90% of their workers with a single dose.

The analysis shows 582 centres have vaccinated less than 50% of their workforce with a single dose, while 60 centres have vaccinated less than 20% of their workforce, including 18 centres with vaccination rates below 10%. A further 25 have reported no data.

The release of the national data comes as the Health Services Union calls for the 17 September mandate to be abandoned to avoid an exodus of workers, and as Labor condemns the vaccination program as an “abject failure”.

In June, states and territories agreed through national cabinet to require staff at aged care facilities to have at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by 17 September, following advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

Of the 276,022 workers in the sector, 196,649 have received one dose (71%), while 136,196 (49%) are fully vaccinated.

The government’s vaccination of aged care workers has been plagued by delays and confusion, despite the workforce initially being included in the highest priority phase of the rollout, which would have seen them vaccinated by April.

The analysis also shows there is considerable variation in the average vaccination rate by aged care provider, with some providers’ facilities surging ahead, while others fall behind.

Anglican Care, which has 11 facilities located from the New South Wales central coast to Port Macquarie regions, has one of the lowest average rates of vaccination for its centres, with four facilities in the zero to 9% range, and five facilities in the 10% to 19% range.

On the upper end, Ballarat Health Services, which runs 10 facilities in Ballarat, has the highest staff vaccination rate, with five centres in the 90% to 100% range.

In a statement, Anglican Care said staff had indicated high levels of support for the Covid-19 vaccine, and said the department figures were not up to date and reflected their conservative reporting approach.

“With more widespread community access to vaccines, we are now seeing vaccination rates amongst Anglican Care staff increasing substantially within a short period of time.”

“We remain confident that staff are accessing vaccination appointments as soon as practicable and that our workforce will meet the government-mandated deadline.”

Health Services Union national president, Gerard Hayes, urged the government not to follow through on the mandate, saying there was already a workforce “crisis” that would be compounded if unvaccinated workers were forced out of the sector.

“This is a workforce that is already under stress, both physically and emotionally, and now the government has said ‘do this or else’ as opposed to encouragement,” Hayes told Guardian Australia.

“Give people a reason to leave and they will. We will have people sitting in incontinence pads with nobody to change them, we will have people existing and not living, we will have people with no dignity at all.”

Patricia Sparrow, the chief executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, said the reason for low rates of vaccination in the sector “has little to do with our workers”.

“If our workers had received the jab in their place of work earlier this year, as was originally planned, the vaccination program would have been completed by now.”

Leading Age Service Australia general manager for policy and advocacy, Tim Hicks, said the two peak bodies were working to meet the first dose deadline through the establishment of a new support service.

“The service will engage with providers at the state and territory level to identify barriers to vaccine uptake and help them get access to vaccinations for staff as quickly as possible,” Hicks said.

“The pace of the vaccination of aged care staff has picked up markedly over the past three weeks with more in-reach clinics allowing staff to be vaccinated at work, or to be given priority at community vaccination hubs and GP clinics.”

A spokesperson for the department of health said the governments of Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, and the Northern Territory had all released public health directions to implement the national cabinet decision, while the NSW order was expected soon.

“Each state and territory will determine the scope of workforce and any exemptions that may apply. Failure to comply with these directions will be a matter for each jurisdiction.”

The spokesperson said “proportionate compliance and improvement action” would be coordinated between state and territory authorities and the commonwealth , but providers and workers would be legally obliged to comply with the state health orders.

“The Department of Health is working with each residential aged care facility to ensure plans are in place, and to provide support where needed, to ensure every residential aged care worker has access to a Covid-19 vaccination prior to 17 September.”

This included on-site vaccination clinics, rapid in-reach roving clinics, and dedicated vaccination hubs being offered alongside state and territory clinics and primary care clinics.

Labor’s shadow minister for health and ageing, Mark Butler, said seven aged care residents had died in the “disastrous” third wave, having contracted Covid through unvaccinated aged care staff unknowingly bringing the virus into their facility.

“After all the tragic lessons we learned in aged care last year, no one should be dying from Covid in an aged care facility,” Butler said.

“Scott Morrison’s failures on aged care are having tragic consequences for older Australians,” Butler said.

“Older Australians and their carers can’t afford for Scott Morrison to fail this latest promise – to ensure that all aged care staff received one dose by September 17.”

In parliament on Tuesday, Labor said the low vaccination rates showed the program had been “an abject failure by the prime minister putting vulnerable Australians at risk”.

The health minister, Greg Hunt, said “lives are being saved in their hundreds” as a result of the vaccination of both workers and of residents.

“These workers are doing a magnificent job and I want to thank them and encourage them and continue to push forward,” he said.

The NSW government referred questions about the vaccine mandate to the federal government, while Queensland Health said it was working with staff in its residential aged care facilities and multi-purpose health services “to ensure the deadline for mandatory first dose and second dose is met”.

“Aged care workers, in both public and private facilities, are being prioritised for vaccination,” the spokesperson said.

An SA health spokesperson said residential aged care facilities would need to ensure “all their staff, contractors and volunteers” meet the requirements of the state’s public health order.