As the transmission of COVID-19 continues to increase across the globe, those working in aged care stand as one of the last bastions of hope for protecting and supporting elderly and vulnerable Australians from this disease.

Aged care providers in Australia have done an outstanding job of preventing the spread of the virus thus far, with many taking it upon themselves to tighten infection control protocols and mitigate risk by limiting visitors.

Yet despite all their hard work combating this pandemic, the threat of an upcoming flu season looms as another monumental challenge for aged care providers whose resources are already stretched beyond belief.

One of the greatest defences that providers have against the spread of influenza is vaccinations.

Although aged care providers have previously been asked to keep records of staff and volunteers who received influenza vaccinations every year, they did not have the power to stand-down staff members who were not vaccinated against the flu – until now.

From 1 May 2020, anyone entering a residential aged care facility will be required to provide appropriate evidence of flu vaccination.

A statement provided to HelloCare from the Department of Health revealed the kind of evidence that visitors and aged care staff members will need to provide.

“Residential aged care providers should 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.

“Each state and territory requires that persons must not enter or remain on premises of residential aged care facilities if they do not have an up-to-date (ie. 2020) vaccination against influenza, if 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.”

With all of this focus on the vaccination of both staff and visitors to aged care homes, it’s important to note that while residents are encouraged to get flu vaccinations, they do still have the right to refuse.

Anti-Vaxx or Anti-Facts?

After a horror flu season in 2017 that resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 Australians, the Turnbull government legislated that every aged care facility be required by law to offer influenza vaccination to their staff.

A government-led push to raise awareness of vaccinations and the subsequent increase in the number of people being vaccinated resulted in an astounding drop to only 57 recorded deaths from influenza in Australia the following year.

Experts believed that the massive drop in recorded flu cases in 2018 was the catalyst for a relaxed attitude towards vaccination in 2019 which resulted in an alarmingly steep increase to over 900 deaths in 2019.

Influenza expert, Professor Michael Woodward AM, sat down recently with HelloCare and explained why high vaccination rates prevent the spread of the flu.

“Flu kills more people each year than almost all infectious diseases- even more, so far, than COVID-19. Indeed, the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 2018 killed up to 100 million people,” said Professor Woodward.

“We have effective vaccines for both health care workers and older residents – and if we achieve an adequate vaccination rate – close to 100% is best – we can prevent flu.”

“The last thing we want is to get both flu and COVID-19, or to have flu but have to be treated as if we have COVID-19.”

Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has set the internet ablaze with public opinions regarding infection control and the validity of medical advice regarding infectious disease.

An alarming number of aged care staff have taken to their keyboards to declare that they avoid flu vaccination, with some even vowing to avoid vaccination this year.

While anti-vaccine sentiments are more commonly thought of in regards to children’s vaccines, Professor Woodward did not mince words when describing those who are opposed to influenza vaccination.

This sad train of thought is not based on science and essentially leads to people dying, or being killed through contact with infected others.”

“We can believe in fiction – as sadly do many – or believe in science.”

Should Standing Up, Result In Being Stood Down?

While Professor Woodward was adamant that staff members who refuse to be vaccinated should be stood down, Member of the Immunisation Coalition Scientific Advisory Committee, Associate Professor John Litt AM, doesn’t think that standing staff down is the answer.

“My personal belief is to not mandate the vaccine but provide a range of options,” said Professor Litt.

Professor Litt then went on to outline a number of ideas that could encourage staff to get vaccinated, as he believes that the most who refuse to vaccinate do so out of a lack of information and availability, rather than anti-vaccine beliefs.

“Good information, easy access to the vaccine, exploring and addressing concerns, wearing a mask for the flu season, and offering free flu vaccine,” said Professor Litt

“The number who do not get the flu vaccine is likely to be quite small (eg 20%). Very few of these are what we would call ‘anti-vaxxers’ (because) they are happy to have many of the other recommended vaccines, just not influenza vaccine.”

Further information on the requirements regarding influenza vaccination can be found on the Department of Health website here and here.

Photo courtesy of iStock – credit – SDI Productions

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