A New South Wales aged care worker has contracted coronavirus, but the source of the infection remains unknown.

The woman from Sydney who contracted the virus is only the third case of locally acquired coronavirus in Australia.

Her infection raises serious concerns about the health of residents at the facility where she worked who may have been exposed to the virus.

Authorities will isolate residents and conduct testing to see if the virus has been passed on.

The woman is in her 50s, and works in an aged care facility in northern Sydney. She has not travelled overseas recently, confirming that the virus is now spreading within Australia.

Leading Age Services Australia CEO Nick Rooney, told HelloCare it is “extremely concerning” the source of the virus is unknown. 

“Absolute vigilance and caution is required, both across the community and within aged care homes, because the virus can be transmitted before showing symptoms.”

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the woman has been quarantined in hospital.

There are now 15 reported cases in NSW, and 38 Australia wide.

Older people most at risk

This case is particularly concerning as studies have shown the virus appears to be most dangerous for older people

A study of 72,000 coronavirus cases in China revealed that people aged over 80 who contract the virus have a 14.8 per cent chance of dying from the disease. By comparison, no children under the age of nine have died. Those aged 70-79 have an 8.0 per cent chance of dying, and those aged 60-69 have a 3.6 per cent chance.

Overall, the fatality rate is 3.4 per cent. Excluding China, the rate is 1.8 per cent.

Most of those who have died have had preexisting conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Yesterday HelloCare reported that one elderly man has died, becoming the first person to die from the virus in Australia.

“Situation could change at any time”

On Monday the Aged Care Quality and Safety commissioner, Janet Anderson PSM, wrote to aged care providers.

“While the number of cases of COVID-19 is currently small in Australia, it is possible that this situation could change at any time, and providers of all services need to give a high priority to planning and being prepared for this scenario,” she wrote.

“Providers should pay close attention… at this critical time and be vigilant in maintaining the highest possible standards for minimisation of infection-related risks.

Aged care sector a “very, very high priority”

In a media briefing yesterday, the Health Minister Greg Hunt said this week he would be focusing on the aged care sector’s preparedness.

“The aged care sector is a very, very high priority because of the vulnerability of the elderly, that’s my number one priority for this week,” he said.

Aged care facilities to prepare for “lockdown”

The Prime Minister told A Current Affair Australia is preparing for a ‘pandemic’.

He said aged care facilities could be locked down if necessary.

“We’ve been working with aged care facilities in recent weeks to ensure they’re prepared. 

“We’re able to lock down aged care facilities if we need to to protect the residents in those areas, because they are some of the most vulnerable in the community,” he said.

Mr Rooney said aged care facilities are “aware” of the potential for lockdowns and the industry is “working through the operational impacts of an outbreak including ensuring there is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment.”

Plan and prepare

The Chief Medical Officer has written to aged care providers calling on them to plan and prepare for a potential outbreak.

Mr Rooney said it was “vital” providers follow the Department’s guidance.

“While providers face the annual outbreak of influenza, it is critical they add to these protocols by closely following the Department of Health’s updated COVID-19 advice. 

“This includes special guidance for staff, family and community members who may be at risk of transmitting the virus to aged care residents. Self-monitoring and strict compliance with official COVID-19 directions and service provider protocols is vital, especially regarding isolation rules,” he said.

The Department of Health is planning a forum to help the sector prepare for cases of coronavirus that might arise.

Aged care homes are expected to assess the risk of, and take steps to prevent, detect and control the spread of infections. Infection management, such as isolating infectious consumers, and applying standard precautions to prevent transmission, minimises the risk of transmission.

Under the quality standards, aged care providers are expected to assess and manage the risk of infectious outbreaks, ensure adequate care of the infected individual, take protection measures for residents, visitors and staff, and keep consumers, families, carers and the relevant authorities informed.

They shared references to information with providers to help their planning which are available on the Department of Health website.

Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, told The Guardian he would like to see urgent audits undertaken to make sure providers are equipped to carry out their infectious disease control plans.

The latest information from the government on coronavirus can be found on the Department of Health’s website or you can call the hotline 1800 020 080.

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