Michael Pascoe: Aged care out of emergency staff as outbreaks more than double


The number of aged-care homes suffering COVID outbreaks more than doubled again last week to 1107, the number of residents with the virus jumped by 141 per cent, and the sector ran out of workforce surge staff the week before.

As previously reported here, the exponential explosion is on track to have outbreaks in practically every home outside Western Australia next week, imprisoning some 180,000 Australians.

There were 1370 active resident cases on January 7. On January 14, there were 3208 and 39 people had died.

Residential aged-care staffing is beyond crisis level.

Active staff cases last week also more than doubled from 1835 to 3806, with more unable to work due to close contact status, even with the winding back of the “close contact” definition.

Staff already were commonly working 12-hour shifts.

The weekly federal Health Department report indicates the system has run out of surge staff.

In reality, there have been precious few surge staff available since the Omicron variant took off here.

Between December 3 and January 7, surge staff from various agencies filled only 5000 shifts.

Last week as the outbreaks spiralled, there was none.

Earlier last year when they were COVID-free, the Tasmanian, West Australian and South Australian governments supplied 50 workforce surge staff, along with 70 National Aged Care Emergency Response personnel – but that deployment finished months ago, before Omicron broke out.

Homes phoning private agencies for more staff are being told there simply aren’t any.

Under Public Health Unit control, homes typically go into full Tier 0 lockdown during an outbreak – residents confined to their rooms with only end-of-life visits.

Figures are not available for Tier 1 lockdowns – residents allowed out of their rooms but confined to barracks with only compassionate visits – but it would be several hundred more homes in that category given the prevalence of Omicron in the community and PHU sensitivity.

Under present policies, elderly Australians are facing indefinite rolling lockdowns, the confinement clock resetting with each outbreak.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has claimed the rollout of vaccine boosters is “ahead of expectations and schedule” – yet hundreds of homes have not received them as the government scrambles.

Greg Hunt said the aged-care booster rollout was “ahead of expectations and schedule”, but many homes are yet to receive them. Photo: AAP

Once everyone has received boosters, an invidious decision is awaiting the government: Having gone with “let it rip” in the general community, when do they let the elderly take their chances – or keep them imprisoned, denying basic human rights?

The former would further strain an overloaded health system and deliver politically embarrassing numbers of deaths. The latter is inhumane and unsustainable.

Reading between the report’s lines, the supply of RATs also became precarious.

As of December 21, 2.9 million RATs “had been delivered or were scheduled for delivery from the National Medical Stockpile”.

It appears 2.7 million RATS were distributed to “aged-care facilities” over the following four weeks.

With 147,000 direct care workers in the sector and an unknown number of other staff – cleaners, cooks, admin – 2.7 million wouldn’t go far for tests before shifts over the better part of a month.

The report says another three million RATs are expected to be distributed this week.

“Recently, due to rapidly increasing case numbers across most states, delivery to non-outbreak sites has now adapted to a surge approach,” the report states.

On December 17, 54 homes had outbreaks.

On December 23, it was 105.

On January 7, 495.

On January 14, 1107.

At this rate, there won’t be non-outbreak sites next week.

We’ve Already Come Too Far To End This Now.

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