Since we’re in the age of the milder Covid-19 Omicron variant we can all relax. Can’t we? Not really. Not if you live in aged care. Here we explain why the Covid-19 Omicron threat to aged care in Australia is worse than it should be.
Covid-19’s progress through aged care facilities – or nursing homes – has always worried us.
But in 2022, a year only a little over five weeks old, more than 400 of Australia’s 1160 Covid-19 deaths have been in residential aged care facilities.
This is getting close to double the number of Covid-19 deaths in aged care for the whole of last year. (We had 282 in the sector in 2021 but by the end of January 2022, we’d already had 389.)
This week Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called in the defence force to help with staff shortages in nursing homes.
It’s a move supported by aged care advocates – but conditionally – because the crisis happening now could have been predicted long ago. That said, while they argue for long term fixes, not soldiers cleaning toilets, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is one of the groups that’s been appealing for assistance from the army for weeks.
A collision course
The Covid-19 bullet train has arrived in what appears to be a spectacular flash, threatening aged care facilities from one side. Although not really. We’ve watched the suspended animation, as the first, then the second and now the third vaccine have been over-promised in the sector and then under-delivered, with delay after delay of scheduling and delivery.
That’s not entirely the government’s fault. In Victoria, for example, in a pattern that has been repeated across the country, the number of facilities with Covid-19 outbreaks grew from seven to 296 in just one month, at the end of last year.
And just as residents have been getting sick with Covid-19, so too have staff, with the infection rates across the workforce more than tripling.
“Many aged care providers were battling outbreaks with few staff available to work, and little or no assistance from the federal government’s surge workforce, providers say,” reported The Age on January 30.
So the illness and furloughing has contributed to an already serious staff shortage, in an industry where only 50 per cent of workers have received their Covid-19 boosters, even though they work on the front line.
Aged care facilities are struggling with this pressure and aged care residents across the country are once again being confined to their rooms either to protect them or because there are not enough staff to look after them.
Steaming towards this snafu at a slower but steadier pace are structural problems, long identified in our aged care facilities.
And the two are colliding now.
The background issues
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality which reported last year pointed to systemic problems which the Federal Government has promised to address, including with $17.7 billion of federal funding to be spent over four years.
But the Federal Government did not commit to badly needed wage rises for the aged care work force and mandatory minimum qualifications for personal care workers. And in any case, when Australia’s borders were shut because of the pandemic, the supply of workers on restricted visas who have been the backbone of the aged care industry disappeared.
There’s not just the Covid-19 disease to contend with in all of this but also society’s attitudes. To put it crudely, the thinking sometimes is: ‘Well, they’re old, so they’re going to die anyway.’
But that’s usually the perspective of people who don’t know the elderly or have much to do with them. Technically, the clinical definition of someone elderly is aged 65 and over. But someone that old could have another thirty years of kick-ass life in them.
Yes, the older we get, the more likely we are to die of old age, something we all need to be realistic about. But plenty of elderly people are not frail and do not have conditions and co-morbidities that are life threatening. So we need to “plan pessimistically and live optimistically” as the saying goes.
So once again, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed our ageism.Towards solutions
What is the solution?
Campaigner for aged care reform, Cecilia Webster, who leads the Victorian chapter of Aged Care Reform Now says what we’re seeing now is the manifestation of years of neglect in the industry. It needs to be completely redesigned, she says.
Cecilia and Liz Barton, another leader of the Victorian chapter of Aged Care Reform Now point out that the casualisation of the industry, including a lack of consistent, full-time nursing staff, is preventing necessary cultures of cooperation and leadership within residential homes.
Furthermore, they note that the extra investment in workers would most likely reduce the burden on our hospital systems in the long run.
“Unnecessary hospitalisations, that’s actually a productivity issue,” Webster says.
For more on this topic, read Liz Barton’s piece: The Staffing Crisis in aged care and her powerful and practical suggested solutions. Yes, the Covid-19 Omicron threat to aged care in Australia is worse than it should be. But there’s a wealth of data, knowledge and learning out there to show to change this.
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For further reading on how we manage Covid-19 and the elderly, click on the image below:
And don’t be despondent if you’re old and Covid-19 is nearby. Read this piece to find out why.