The ABC’s Four Corners program will tonight reveal that residents of Newmarch House were promised a ‘hospital in the home’ within the facility, but the equipment and resources available to them meant delivering on that promise was impossible.

The Newmarch House outbreak lasted three months and saw 19 residents lose their lives after 37 residents and 34 staff tested positive to the virus. 

Anne Connolly, who led the ABC investigation, said she hopes details uncovered in the report will help authorities better handle infectious disease outbreaks in the future.

“I think the events at Newmarch House will change the way any other outbreak is handled,” she told HelloCare.

Residents prevented from going to hospital

One of the most significant weaknesses in Newmarch House’s response to COVID-19 was its failure to send residents to hospital.

“NSW Health introduced a model called ‘hospital in the home’ which it said was the equivalent of being in a hospital, except there was no possibility of having a ventilator,” Ms Connolly said.

“Families agreed with that but now say they later discovered there were many differences including no access to IV fluids, blood tests and a strict level of infection control,” she said.

Australia’s first nursing home outbreak occurred at Dorothy Henderson Lodge in western Sydney. 

”At Dorothy Henderson Lodge, 80 per cent of infected residents went to hospital. At Newmarch House, it was 16 per cent,” Ms Connolly told HelloCare.

Dorothy Henderson Lodge saw fewer than half the number of cases and deaths Newmarch experienced. Only 18 people – 13 residents and five staff – contracted the virus and six residents passed away.

Some aged care facilities have been able to confine infections to a single case.

After Newmarch House was declared free of COVID-19, Anglicare CEO Grant Millard admitted that if he had his time again he would have sent residents who contracted the virus to hospital. 

Lessons for future outbreaks

Ms Connolly said she hopes that by shedding light on the different approaches, authorities will be better prepared.

“I’m sure authorities will consider those differences and the way the virus spread and the number of aged care staff who were infected,” Ms Connolly said. 

“Perhaps more people will go to hospital next time and there will be more stringent training of staff about how to use PPE and basic infection control principles.”

Spread like “the plague”

The ABC’s Radio National this morning played an excerpt from tonight’s episode. Mary Watson, whose mother Alice Bacon, 93, died at Newmarch House, said COVID-19 “spread the plague” in the nursing home.

Ms Connolly told Fran Kelly one resident’s family wanted to remove their loved one from Newmarch House but was threatened with a public health order that, if breached, would have cost the resident, who was in his nineties, $11,000 or six months in prison. The resident eventually contracted COVID-19 and died.

Newmarch House also recorded a number of false negative results, making it almost impossible to properly contain the virus.

Senior aged care figures declined to be interviewed for the program, including Mr Millard, NSW Health, the Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, and Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner, Janet Anderson.

Royal Commission to investigate

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety will look into aged care providers’ response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The Commissioners will learn from how residential aged care facilities such as Newmarch House, Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Opal Care Bankstown responded to the crisis and what more could have been done to support them,” a statement said. 

“The focus of the inquiry will be upon the lessons that can be learnt for responding to future pandemics or infectious disease outbreaks. The purpose of the inquiry is not to find fault or apportion blame.”

The ABC’s hard-hitting investigations into failings in the aged care sector have been instrumental in driving change, including in the calling of the royal commission. With aged care facilities so heavily impacted by COVID-19, tonight’s Four Corners will be closely watched, holding lessons for how to manage outbreaks of infectious disease in the future.

Image: akiyoko, iStock.

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