Expansion of COVID-19 testing criteria

To further protect vulnerable Australians, the Government has agreed to an AHPPC recommendation to expand the current coronavirus testing criteria to include testing of aged and residential care workers with fever or acute respiratory infection.

The testing criteria is set out in the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Communicable Disease Network Australia guidelines for Public Health Units.  As per the guidelines, aged or residential care workers who have a fever (≥38°C) or history of fever (e.g. night sweats, chills) OR acute respiratory infection (e.g. cough, shortness of breath, sore throat) must be tested.

Aged care workers should access testing under existing arrangements.  These may include collection of samples and testing by Public Health Units, or collection of samples (for example by GPs or other health workers or pathology collection centre staff) and testing by private providers.

As part of the Government’s $2.4 billion health package to protect Australians from COVID-19, funding was made available for ‘in-reach’ pathology testing for COVID-19 in residential aged care facilities. The Department of Health is presently developing options for how this service may be implemented in a way that supplements existing arrangements. The Department will consult with the aged care sector shortly on potential options.

Restrictions on enter into aged care facilities – influenza vaccinations

All states and territories have released directions (links below) that set out specific requirements with regard to entry into and visitors to residential aged care facilities. These directions give effect within each jurisdiction to the decisions made by National Cabinet that were announced by the Prime Minister on 18 March 2020.

The state and territory directions set out specific requirements in relation to influenza vaccinations.

Specifically, the requirements set out that individuals must not enter or remain on the premises of a residential aged care facility if the person does not have an up-to-date (i.e. 2020) vaccination against influenza, if such a vaccination is available to the person.

Residential aged care providers should work to have all staff vaccinated prior to 1 May 2020. If staff are not able to be vaccinated before 1 May 2020, then in line with the state and territory directions, staff should seek to have an up-to-date vaccination against influenza, as soon as such a vaccination is available to them.

Tasmania and New South Wales do allow some exemptions to these requirements. Residential aged care providers may otherwise need to redeploy staff that are not able to be vaccinated.

Aged care providers are required to take all reasonable steps to ensure that a person does not enter or remain on the premises if they do not meet the influenza vaccination (and other) requirements set out in the relevant state and territory directions. This applies to staff, visitors, health practitioners, volunteers and others.

Approved providers may need to seek appropriate evidence of immunisation status from individuals seeking to enter the service. Appropriate evidence may be a statement or record from a health practitioner; or an immunisation history statement available from Medicare online or the Express Plus Medicare mobile app. Approved providers may also consider maintaining records to support effective administration and to substantiate their compliance with this requirement.

The directions are published on state/territory government websites as follows:

State and territory law enforcement agencies will enforce these directions. Persons who fail to comply with any of the directions could face penalties including fines for individuals and for bodies corporate.

What if a consumer wants to cease their home care package services?

There are multiple reasons why a consumer, or their representative, may ask to stop receiving care and services.  If their circumstances have changed due to COVID-19, home care providers can offer to review the person’s care plan and adjust their package of care and services.

If a consumer is concerned about exposure to COVID-19, providers can note their ongoing responsibility to prevent and control infection and detail their actions to manage COVID-19. There are resources available here to support general discussions about COVID-19, including appropriate use of surgical masks.

Providers can advise consumers who decide they do not want to receive care and services to suspend, or ‘take leave’ from their package. This qualifies as ‘social leave’ and is subject to the usual provisions.

Image: Dobrila Vignjevic, iStock.

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