Aged care is on the front line of the battle against COVID-19, with elderly residents the most at risk from the disease. In Europe, the United States and Britain, the number of residents in aged care succumbing to the disease is deeply alarming.

The situation is also serious in Australia. Of Australia’s 63 COVID-19 deaths, 10 were either residents of an aged care facility (9) or receiving home care services (1).

In Europe, new data from Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain suggests care home residents have accounted for between 42 per cent and 57 per cent of all deaths related to COVID-19, according to a report by the International Long-Term Care Policy Network.

UK nursing home residents not being taken to hospital

The United Kingdom is also experiencing serious problems in its aged care settings. It’s estimated that 18 per cent of all homes have recorded an outbreak. 

Other problems are arising too. Many ill residents are not being taken to hospital, and there are alarming reports residents are being asked to sign ‘do not resuscitate’ orders.

A former care worker who now runs advocacy group, Compassion in Care, Eileen Chubb, says older hospital patients with COVID-19 are being taken to care homes, putting staff and residents at grave risk.

Could it happen here?

Australia has seen several serious outbreaks in aged care facilities.

Australia has had 28 confirmed cases among residential aged care recipients, and 17 aged care facilities have recorded at least one employee or resident to be infected with COVID-19. 

In home care, a total of 19 cases have been reported across a number of services. 

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Source: Department of Health

“The stories from overseas have been horrific and have put Australian aged care providers on maximum alert,” said Leading Age Services Australia’s Manager of Policy and Advocacy, Tim Hicks. 

But he said Australia’s response has been comparatively successful so far.

“Aged care is facing an extraordinary situation, that has led to an extraordinary response from the industry that has been extraordinarily effective so far,” Mr Hicks told HelloCare.

Aged and Community Services Australia CEO, Pat Sparrow, told HelloCare that despite reassuring progress minimising the outbreak in Australia, there is still a level of worry among aged care providers. 

“People are working really, really hard to try and make sure they’re minimising the risk, but it’s only natural everyone’s concerned about an outbreak.” 

The “heartbreaking” outbreak at Anglicare this week caused by a worker who wasn’t symptomatic demonstrates the risks, Ms Sparrow said. 

“It shows how alert we have to be to try and make sure we don’t bring (COVID-19) into residential care,” she said.

Testing being ramped up

The aged care sector, with the support of government, is working hard to stay ahead of the virus.

Providers are testing temperatures and the government has recently announced point-of-care testing will soon become available.

Ms Sparrow said testing is going to become “really important” as part of the screening process.

“There seems to be greater acceptance by government that there are other forms of testing that should be happening,” she said. 

“Various state governments are putting more and more testing in place,” Ms Sparrow said, adding that experiences from overseas provide opportunities to learn. 

“We’ve seen in other countries that have done testing that they’ve been fairly successful in limiting (COVID-19)… That’s what we really need to focus on.”

LASA has welcomed the “great increase” in COVID-19 testing in residential aged care and wants to see it extended “as quickly as possible”, Mr Hicks said.

LASA would also like to see people entering residential aged care to be tested.

PPE still in short supply 

Mr Hicks said access to PPE and rising costs is an “urgent and pressing issue” for many age providers.

“It’s an ongoing issue,” said Ms Sparrow, who reported providers are still having difficulties accessing PPE and are having to pay more for the equipment. 

“What we are seeing is big increases in what it’s costing, delays in deliveries, and orders only being able to be partially filled,” Ms Sparrow said.

However, when providers are needing to access the government’s stockpile, she said they are finding they are being prioritised and they are getting the support they need.

More homes are adopting lockdowns

Providers are increasingly moving to full lockdowns, Ms Sparrow said. 

“There are some who are saying they’re happy operating within the commonwealth’s restrictions. For some though, they’ve felt the level of people movement was too much for them to ensure that people were safe, so some of the people have gone the additional step (and implemented lockdowns).

“It’s certainly something we’re seeing among our members that perhaps this is the best way to stop (COVID-19) in its tracks.” 

Ms Sparrow said lockdowns can also allow residents greater freedom of movement within their facilities.

Mr Hicks said LASA has observed providers “refining” their approach to restricted visitation.

“Some services (are) tightening initial restrictions, while others are developing processes to allow more visits where it is safe and appropriate to do so,” he said. 

“We urge families to minimise visits but maintain connections with their loved ones in other ways,” Mr Hicks suggested. 

More needs to be done

Nearly 16 percent of Australia’s COVID-19 deaths so far have occurred in aged care. There is not doubt the aged care industry on the front line of Australia’s battle with the disease. 

But we are fortunate in that we are not experiencing the shocking numbers being seen in Europe, the UK and the US. 

Ongoing vigilance is essential to ensure that remains the case.

Mr Hicks told HelloCare the government is still doing too little to cover the increased costs to the aged care sector associated with stronger infection control and meeting the needs of residents coping with increased social isolation.

“Many services are also facing reduced revenue as people turn down community care and choose not to enter residential care,” Mr Hicks said.

A wicked problem for troubled times.

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