COVID-19 has returned to federally run aged care facilities in Melbourne, with two aged care workers and one resident testing positive this week and many fearing the situation could worsen due to government inaction on vaccinations and staffing.
In the latest Victorian outbreak, a staff member at one private aged care facility caught COVID from a colleague at one centre and then worked at another centre, a situation that would have been impossible at a state-run aged care facility.
While staff in state-run aged care facilities cannot work at other sites, staff at private facilities, which are under the federal government’s jurisdiction, have no such limits on their employment.
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Victoria and other states have increased the pay rates for aged care workers to compensate for their inability to work across multiple sites to make a liveable wage, but this is yet to happen at a federal level, despite the aged care royal commission recommending these changes.
The federal government issued new guidelines to stop staff working at more than one facility by topping up their pay for any hours lost during the Victorian outbreak last year, but the program was shut down in November.
The government has also been under attack for not doing enough to ensure aged care workers were vaccinated and the slow rollout for residents, with many still waiting for their second jab despite the rollout starting on 22 February.
Aged care minister Richard Colbeck told a senate estimates committee on Tuesday morning that just over half of the residents in aged care facilities in Victoria have received their second vaccination dose, however, he could not produce the numbers for workers who had been vaccinated as this information was not being collected.
The health department figures showed that 25,319 aged care residents have received their second dose.
Mr Colbeck defended the pace of the rollout on Radio National on Tuesday morning.
“The advice based on international experience was not to vaccinate staff and residents at the same time. So, we then prioritised the residents in aged care facilities,” Mr Colbeck said.
“We are comfortable where we’re at (with the rollout).
“Everybody would’ve liked to have done it faster but logistically, we’ve done it as quickly as we possibly could.”
Mr Colbeck also admitted in the estimates hearing that there was no federal rollout of the vaccine for aged care workers. Staff were able to receive a dose if there was extra left over from the residential rollout or left to fend for themselves to try and secure a vaccination.
Prior to the issues this week, operators only needed to voluntarily report their workforce vaccination numbers, with the federal government now asking providers to tell them how many have been vaccinated.
Labor’s shadow aged care minister Clare O’Neil told 7.30 on Monday night that the government had ‘stuffed up’ its aged care response to COVID.
“The federal government promised us that by March every single aged care resident and every single aged care worker would be fully vaccinated,” Ms O’Neil said. “They have not met that target by any stretch of the imagination.
“The thing that has been completely stuffed up though is the vaccination of aged care workers.
“The government initially gave us this commitment that aged care workers would be vaccinated. They didn’t deliver on it and, in fact, have left aged care workers on their own to manage their own vaccinations and, as a consequence, very few have been vaccinated.
“And, of course, we’ve got this ridiculous situation where, still today, aged care workers in Victoria are working across multiple sites. That is because endemic issues face the workforce in aged care where a lot of people just have to work multiple sites to make ends meet.”
Chief executive of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) Sean Rooney told The Guardian that aged care staff were supposed to be part of phase 1a of the vaccination rollout.
“We were told upfront that staff and residents were a priority,” Mr Rooney said. “They were front of the queue. But where we are today, staff have been left to find their own path, rather than having in-reach teams coming into the homes to vaccinate the staff.
“I can’t tell you how many workers are vaccinated, because the government is not keeping a record of it. We’ve asked them for that and they say ‘it’s a work in progress’.
“I can’t tell you right now, at a state level or a national level, how many staff are vaccinated.”
Are you worried about the federal government’s handling of vaccinations and staff in aged care facilities leading to another massive COVID outbreak? Are you disappointed with the way the vaccine is being rolled out?
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