Low paid aged care workers should not be made scapegoats for the growing COVID-19 outbreak, unions say, as the federal government’s efforts to vaccinate the workforce come under scrutiny.
Amid revelations a 70-year-old unvaccinated woman was one of two new cases at SummitCare Baulkham Hills on Monday, taking the total number of residents diagnosed to five, unvaccinated workers were still working at the front line to keep the COVID-stricken care facility afloat.
Authorities declined to comment on the woman’s condition on Monday evening. The four other residents had been vaccinated but were being monitored at Westmead Hospital as a precaution.
Gerard Hayes from the Health Services Union warned the aged care workforce should not be “made the scapegoats” following revelations the outbreak at SummitCare was sparked by two unvaccinated employees.
Unions cited unclear messaging about the safety of AstraZeneca and a shambolic vaccination rollout for the aged care workforce as reasons for the crisis unfolding in north-western Sydney.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed 97,000 of the country’s 280,000 aged care workers have had at least one dose of a vaccine.
That was about 6 per cent higher than the average for all Australians, Mr Hunt said.
“But it’s precisely because of this, that national cabinet, with very strong advocacy from the Prime Minister and the federal government, made the decision last week to ensure that it would be mandatory for every aged care worker who wishes to work in an aged care facility to be vaccinated,” he said.
But Mr Hayes said as vaccine clinics were sweeping through aged care facilities earlier this year doling out jabs to residents, workers were left with “limited access” to the leftovers despite being considered a high priority for inoculation.
The federal government quietly dropped plans to vaccinate aged care staff alongside residents after overseas experience showed that could lead to staff shortages.
“From the outset the logistical rollout was not thought through,” said Mr Hayes, whose union represents aged care workers in NSW.
He said the vaccine rollout was complicated by the unique composition of the aged care workforce.
“There’s a lot of casualised employment, there’s a lot of people working part-time, who work two or three different jobs, they’re on 22 or 23 dollars an hour,” Mr Hayes said.
“We’ve had several people contact and say I’ve been booked in to be vaccinated tomorrow and now due to being short-staffed I have to go work.”
Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, said the mixed messaging about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine was to blame for growing vaccine hesitancy among the aged care workforce.
“I don’t think the information about AZ and its side effects has been helpful in driving people towards vaccination,” he said.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck did not respond to the criticisms of the vaccination program.
SummitCare’s chief operating officer Michelle Sloane said unvaccinated staff were still working and commended their “admirable” decision.
“That just to me shows their dedication to their residents’ care,” she said.
However Kathie Melocco, whose father is one of the SummitCare residents to test positive, said it was a “crazy” situation that people were being encouraged to turn up to work unvaccinated.
“Lets call a spade a spade,” she said.
“The federal government and state government is basically hanging SummitCare out to dry. The reality is September 1 to vaccinate all workers is too late – we’re in a crisis.”
Ms Sloane said she had been urging her staff to get vaccinated but “couldn’t insist” they do so.
“In fact, they were not even obliged to advise us if they had [had the vaccine],” Ms Sloane said.
“We would have liked it to be mandated earlier. I believe that our association liaison [lobbied for that] as had most industry bodies across Australia.”
She said the fact vaccination was not mandatory was “probably one aspect” of the slow uptake among her centre’s staff.
“But the second aspect is it’s a new vaccine and like everybody in the community there was apprehension about having it.”