Surviving aged care in a pandemic

On 27 May Victoria entered its fourth lockdown after yet another COVID-19 quarantine breach. A few days into the lockdown, a mystery case emerged at an aged care facility, where a carer and a resident tested positive.

It emerged that nearly a third of residents and more than two-thirds of staff at the facility had not been vaccinated.

Vaccination in aged care is a federal government responsibility. On Sunday, federal Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt announced an extra 330,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for Victoria. According to Minister Hunt’s media office: “The vaccination of residents in aged care facilities is nearing completion.”

But reports suggest that, nationwide, about 30% of residents in aged care are still not fully vaccinated, and only 11% of carers have received the first dose.

“It’s very unclear, and there is no transparent statistics available in the aged care rollout,” says Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney and an expert in vaccination for the elderly.

“It’s crucial that the workers are vaccinated because that will dramatically reduce the risk of an outbreak being introduced into the facility,” she says. While residents have little contact with the community, particularly during a lockdown, carers can carry the virus in.

MacIntyre says there are two main problems.

One is the lack of transparency around vaccination rates in the aged care and disability sectors, making it unclear where the gaps are.

The second is the lack of logistics around the rollout. Some contractors have provided vaccines for residents and offered a jab to carers only if there were any left over. In other instances, contractors have only vaccinated residents, and carers have been told to sort their vaccination themself.

“Nobody has bothered to vaccinate the workers,” MacIntyre says. “They have just been forgotten.”

According to a report published in the Lancet, Australia has “one of the highest rates worldwide of deaths in residential aged care as a percentage of total deaths,” with 75% of all COVID-19 deaths in aged care facilities.

That age is the strongest predictor of the risk of dying from COVID-19 has been evident since the early days of the pandemic. In the UK, over 70% of COVID-19 deaths are in those aged 75 years and above.

Getting the aged care sector sorted should have been the maximum priority from day one of the vaccination rollout.

“The vaccination program started at the end of February,” says MacIntyre. “We’re in June now, and most of the aged care workforce is unvaccinated. It’s a missed opportunity.”

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