Fears outbreaks could be ‘similar or greater’ than Omicron in aged care

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Fears outbreaks could be ‘similar or greater’ than Omicron in aged care

Aged care providers are “very concerned” rising COVID-19 outbreaks in the sector could be similar or worse than outbreaks seen earlier in the pandemic.

Key points:

  • Aged care providers are calling for more support as cases surge
  • Unions say the workforce is “exhausted” and knows more work is to come
  • The sector has asked the government to extend the availability of ADF support

Interim Aged Care Providers Association (ACPA) CEO Paul Sadler said there were currently 1,013 COVID outbreaks in aged care facilities nationally.

Queensland has the second most of any state, with 219 outbreaks, totalling 5,192 cases amongst residents and staff during the current outbreaks.

New South Wales has the most outbreaks, with 322.

“We have over 6,000 residents nationally and over 3,400 staff who have COVID,” Mr Sadler said.

“We are concerned that we’ll see a level of impact similar to, or possibly even greater than that we had with the first Omicron waves back in December-January, so we are concerned about the next few weeks.

“But we are also at the same time better prepared in terms of personal protective equipment, rapid antigen test availability, and also the antivirals.”

Headshot of Paul Sadler, CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia 

Paul Sadler says there is great risk outbreaks will worsen. (ABC News)

With the COVID wave still swelling, staffing shortages again threaten the industry.

“We’re hearing that somewhere between 10 to 15 per cent of staff are currently unavailable due to catching the disease or being close contacts — that’s a pretty regular number,” Mr Sadler said.

“We are concerned that as the uptick in BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron happens over the next few weeks, we will see a return to the levels of absence that we had back in January in the first wave of Omicron, which was up as high as 30 per cent of staff unavailable.”

ADF called to help with ‘physical and emotional burden’

ACPA is calling on the government to extend the availability of ADF support for the sector, past the August 12 end date.

Mr Sadler said there are currently 24 ADF personnel working in aged care, but expects the numbers to soon rise. 

They are also calling for the federal government to reinstate “prevention funding” for facilities to buy PPE, RATs and other essentials prior to outbreaks.

“This was in place during 2020, [and] into early parts of 2021 but was ceased in the end of June 2021,” Mr Sadler said.

“At the moment, aged care services can only get the costs of prevention reimbursed when they actually have an outbreak and that seems to be a pretty perverse incentive to us.”

Unions have echoed the ACPA’s call for further ADF support.

United Workers Aged Care director Carolyn Smith the current levels of ADF assistance were lower than expected.

“We’re certainly urging the government to be going out and kind of trying to help organise that,” she said,

“We’re also urging providers — don’t be proud, pick up the phone, say, ‘We need the ADF in our facility’.

“Because if we’re understaffed, now staff are pushed to the edge and older Australians suffer.”

Carolyn Smith wearing a red cardigan in an office, in front of large black and red United Workers Union sign.

Carolyn Smith says facilities should ask for help if they need it. (ABC News: Julian Robbins)

Ms Smith said the prospect of another spike in cases in aged care looms large over an physically and emotionally spent work force

“I think aged care workers across Queensland are just feeling this sense of dread,” she said.

“They are already exhausted — they started COVID understaffed — they’ve been working hard for the last couple of years. They’ve seen numerous waves of COVID come through, and I think they’re just feeling sick about it, because what they know is they are going to be absolutely exhausted, working long, sometimes double shifts in full PPE.

“It’s the physical burden, but it’s the emotional burden of going home every day and feeling like you let your residents down.”

She said the government must incentivise people to join the aged care work force.

When asked about the COVID situation in aged care, Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the decision-making falls to the federal government.

“We’d encourage the Commonwealth to continue to work with the sector to make sure that people can be adequately looked after and staff can be furloughed when necessary,” he said.

“I understand there is still defence support in aged care and if necessary, that could be ramped up.”

Hospitalisations hit new high

Queensland recorded 7,644 cases of COVID-19 in the latest reporting period, bringing the active cases figure to 64,806.

Hospitalisations hit a new high, with 1,061 beds occupied by people with the virus, 30 of which are in ICU.

Mr Miles said this was putting immense pressure on the hospital system.

“This is more beds then you would see at our biggest hospitals,” he said.

“Taking one of our biggest hospitals out of the system and what impact that would have and that’s what they’re experiencing right now.”

Mr Miles said the state’s peak is still “weeks away” and hospitals were preparing for higher caseloads.

“There is surge planning for many different scenarios, including some that are much more severe than where we are at right now. But our hospitals will be doing everything that they can,” he said.

“They will be rescheduling our plan to care where they can and where it’s safe to do so.”

Despite the mounting caseload, Mr Miles said there is still “no intention” for the state to implement a mask mandate.

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