Omicron chaos may have killed more in aged care than COVID

At the height of Australia’s Omicron wave there was a “highly statistically significant” jump in the number of people who died in aged care for reasons other than coronavirus, according to a prominent Australian epidemiologist.

Federal health department data revealed to ABC’s Background Briefing program confirmed factors other than the virus itself were leading to the deaths above the usual rate, particularly in January this year.

University of Melbourne professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely said the data showed that in January there was “a substantial increase in death risk” in aged care “even after removing COVID-19 deaths”.

Aged care providers and families of residents have told Background Briefing a shortage of skilled workers and subsequent chaos caused by COVID-19 became a killer on its own during the peak of the Omicron wave.

But aged care minister Richard Colbeck rejected that conclusion.

“The minister has no evidence whatsoever that deaths occurred in this period due to deficiencies in care or lack of care,” a spokesman for Senator Colbeck told Background Briefing.

“The increase in non-COVID deaths in January would not be considered statistically unusual.”

‘They needed help’

“What we’re finding is people aren’t dying of COVID, but people are dying as a result of COVID,” said Melbourne woman Rosy Clarkson, whose 91-year-old mother Maria Loro died on 9 February.

Ms Loro had been triple vaccinated and did not contract COVID-19 while a resident of aged care home Bupa Clayton.

However, 27 residents at Bupa Clayton did get the virus, along with 30 per cent of the workforce.

Ms Clarkson believes the chaos caused by COVID-19 at Bupa Clayton meant that her mother’s diabetes was not being properly monitored.

Ms Loro was found unresponsive on the morning of 28 January and taken to hospital where her blood sugar levels were found to be dangerously high.

She died in hospital two weeks later.

A Bupa spokesperson told the ABC Ms Loro was “adequately monitored and attended to” the night she was discovered unresponsive but, citing privacy reasons, it could not confirm whether her blood sugar levels were checked.

Ms Clarkson said the facility was short on staff, and care had been compromised.

“They needed help. There wasn’t help, there were no staff … everybody had come down with it,” she said.

“I do believe that the federal government should have done something.”

Increase in death rate beyond COVID-19 toll

The number of deaths in aged care during January and February this year jumped more than 20.7 per cent compared to the average of the previous three years, with more than 1700 deaths above the usual number.

However, only 854 residents died with COVID-19.

That means more than half of the excess deaths were among aged care residents who weren’t suffering from the virus.

Senator Colbeck argued there was no evidence that aged care residents died during Omicron’s peak due to deficiencies in care.

“There is no basis to suggest that understaffing, lockdowns or general chaos has in any way contributed to deaths due to non-COVID conditions,” a spokesman for the minister said.

“There is also no evidentiary basis to suggest that additional workforce would have prevented any of these non-COVID deaths during this period.”

Prof. Blakely told the ABC it was not unusual internationally to see a jump in non-COVID deaths in line with a wave of infections.

He said it could be that some of the deaths were due to complications from COVID-19, but not recorded as such.

“It could also be that the deaths were related to inadequate care due to staffing issues,” he added.

A portrait of a bald man wearing a button down shirt and glasses
Mark Sewell, the chief executive of multiple aged care homes, wants the causes of the excess deaths to be investigated. (ABC News)

The CEO of the Warrigal network of 11 aged care homes in NSW, Mark Sewell, said the death rate in his homes doubled in January and February and COVID-19 wasn’t the only killer.

“To see that number increase during January and the first two weeks of February on a weekly basis at double the normal rate just shows how significant this change to each person’s living arrangements is,” he said.

Mr Sewell wants the causes of the excess deaths to be investigated.

“That increase needs to be thoroughly investigated by the Commonwealth Department of Health and each aged care organisation to understand fully what has happened at this time,” he said.

“Not only those who would normally pass away, not only those who passed away with COVID as part of a normal stats for contracting this illness, but also others who passed away earlier than would normally have been expected.”

The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Catherine Bennett, says the data shows a majority of excess deaths in aged care earlier this year were not being caused by the virus itself.

“At the start of 2022, we had a rapid rise in the aged care death rate compared with previous summers, and only a fraction, likely less than half, explained by actual COVID deaths,” Professor Bennett said.

Surge workforce ‘never materialised’

Aged care providers and families have criticised the federal government for not making a ‘surge workforce’ or ADF personnel available when they were needed the most during the Omicron peak in aged care.

Nurses
The aged care sector is experiencing staff shortages as workers have to isolate due to COVID-19. (ABC News: Nic MacBean)

Viv Allanson, the CEO of Maroba aged care home in Newcastle, says she had 70 staff members furloughed as a result of COVID-19 during the Omicron wave and she struggled to find replacements.

“We knew the government was talking up this surge workforce,” she said.

“I’ve been categorising it as somebody’s wet dream, nothing materialised.”

A spokesman for Senator Colbeck told the ABC that by 4 March, workforce surge staff had filled around 84,937 shifts in aged care services impacted by COVID-19.

Richard Colbeck looking to his left while appearing at a parliamentary hearing
Senators questioned Richard Colbeck about the fatality rates last month. (ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

Before a Senate Estimates hearing in mid-February, Senator Colbeck was asked what more he could have done to reduce the number of deaths during the Omicron wave.

He said the peak in January was difficult for the entire sector and conceded that changes to furloughing arrangements for staff might have made a difference.

“Had they been made a little bit earlier, might have helped a bit,” Senator Colbeck said.

“The changing of furlough arrangements meant the staff that work at facilities could have been back in there more quickly rather than having to rely on a pretty scarce surge workforce.”

Other causes of death during winter

Prof. Bennett said the health department data also revealed that earlier in the pandemic, lockdowns and strict COVID-19 protocols saved fewer lives than expected.

“We did not see the 2020 drop in death rate over winter repeated in 2021, even though the international border was still closed, and we had extremely low rates of flu and COVID infection control precautions continuing in most jurisdictions,” Prof. Bennett said.

“This suggests that the lives saved from preventing COVID infection were offset by other causes of death, and quite possibly the longer-term cumulative effects of social and care deprivation under COVID policy.”

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