Aged care operators call for greater access to PPE stockpile

Aged care operators outside existing COVID-19 hotspots say they do not have enough masks for their staff, and are calling for urgent supplies and clear guidelines on hospital transfers and staff, as Australia’s pandemic response grows.

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A regional New South Wales-based operator has revealed to Inside Ageing their difficulty obtaining appropriate equipment, staff and information.

“We do not have adequate supplies of PPE to require our staff to wear masks and PPE,” the operator said.

Inadequate protective equipment and workforce was one of the factors cited in the outbreak at Newmarch House, near Penrith, where 16 residents died. 

The barriers are considered a frontline requirement to reduce the spread of the droplet-borne virus. 

Inside Ageing has reported prices for PPE spiked dramatically since the pandemic started, including an increase in the price of some PPE items up to 600 per cent. Anglicare reported spending $650,000 on PPE in a one-month period. 

Aged care is in the national spotlight of the COVID-19 response, given the vulnerability of the elderly to the respiratory disease.

To the end of July there were 610 cases of COVID-19 in residential aged care or in-home care. More than 40 per cent of deaths in Australia, 78, were from residential aged care.

In Victoria, 47 residents from aged care have died in July.

Operators are also increasingly concerned about access to staff, given requirements on self-isolation amid community transmission. The situation is critical in some regional areas. 

“We know the problems with filling shifts when staff call in sick and the inadequacy of resources in our areas,” the operator said. “We are still trying to recruit across a range of categories to ensure we have adequate coverage.

“And we still can’t get an answer from our local [public health unit] that if there is a positive case we can transfer that person immediately to hospital to give us the best chance to stop a spread.”

Operators and unions are calling for a nationally consistent system for hospital transfers and aged care workers, after the Queensland Government yesterday announced it would restrict staff from working across more than one centre.

United Workers Union Aged Care Director Carolyn Smith said hasty measures threatened to undermine measures to stop the spread. 

“The aged care system was already in crisis due to staff shortages before the pandemic hit,” she said. 

“Now it’s extremely vulnerable to even the slightest cutbacks in staff. You must have a back-up plan if you are forcing staff to stop working two jobs.”

She called for the Queensland Government to fund the additional staff, and offer compensation to workers who lose secondary workplace shifts. 

“We require a national plan to ensure the pressures of the pandemic do not totally derail the aged care system.”

Patricia Sparrow, CEO, Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA)

Aged and Community Care Services chief executive Patricia Sparrow also called for transfers of positive cases to hospital. 

She said PPE was critical and operators were being careful to use appropriate measures. 

“There has been supply issues with PPE in the past but we’re getting on top of that,” she said. 

“It has been an issue.”

Yesterday the Aged Care Royal Commission chair Tony Pagone QC said while the COVID-19 spread was a tragedy, the ongoing inquiry would not investigate under its terms of reference. 

“We simply do not have the resources or time to conduct an inquiry that would do justice to the issues which have arisen so far and continue to change and develop,” he said. “The issues associated with the impacts of COVID-19 in aged care warrant an inquiry of their own.”

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