As the mandatory vaccination cut-off date looms, there is discord and uncertainty within the aged care community.
While 90.8 per cent, of aged-care staff have received their first jab as of Monday, there are fears that an already understaffed and overworked industry will be pushed over the edge by potential lay-offs come the deadline.
Gerard Hayes, president of the Health Services Union, has told The Guardian that the prospect of losing 5-10 per cent of staff was untenable.
“I think the concern I have always had, and as the aged care royal commission showed, there are attrition and retention issues in aged care already,” he said.
A department of health spokesperson told Aged Care News that the Federal Government is providing support where needed so that every worker has the opportunity to access a COVID-19 vaccine before September 17.
“The Department is engaging frequently with aged care providers and providing additional assistance to support workers to get vaccinated, with an intensive focus on facilities with lower vaccination rates,” the spokesperson said.
The problem is, however, that resourcing is only part of the problem; some aged care workers simply do not want the jab.
And with the health department confirming that there will be strictly no exemptions for personal nor religious reasons, some workers are considering abandoning their careers in aged care altogether.
Aged Care News spoke with Katey Lennon, an enrolled nurse of 16 years from Beaudesert, in Queensland.
“I believe I am one of about 40 in an already struggling home, that may have to walk away on the 17th,” she said.
“I’m currently struggling mentally and emotionally, and I’m unsure what to do, as I can’t bring myself to have the vaccine.”
So terrified is she of the potential side-effects, Lennon said that she has cancelled her prospective appointments four times already.
She is booked in for her final attempt on September 16.
“My clients were distraught that I dropped a few days [for failed vaccination attempts].
“This will break them if I can’t go through with it.”
Clare Heywood, a high-care dementia nurse of 12 years from Bushfield Victoria, is also hesitant about the receiving the vaccine.
She is 25 weeks pregnant and uncertain about the safety profile of the vaccine, despite the health department indicating it is both safe and a priority for pregnant women.
“I’m hesitant about how ‘safe’ it really is,” she told Aged Care News.
She said that longer term studies would be necessary before she could fully trust vaccines.
“I recently have had two losses and I guess this is why I dont want to risk losing this baby if something was to happen,” she said.
However, Heywood said that she will receive the vaccine after she has completed breastfeeding her child to ensure she can return to work.
Lisa Fitzpatrick, state secretary of the Nursing and Midwifery Federation, told aged care workers in a health department webinar last week that the priority was ensuring the health of aged care residents above all else.
“It’s not about individual choice,” she said.
Many family members of aged-care residents agree.
Nicole Kostevsky, daughter of a Perth aged care resident, told Aged Care News that she believes anyone unwilling to vaccinate is unsuitable to work in the industry.
“Our loved ones are vulnerable and any staff member who puts their ‘rights’ not to vaccinate above the rights of the elderly in their care shouldn’t be working in the industry.
“A job that doesn’t put people’s lives at stake is more suited to people who can’t put others first,” she says.
But for many workers, even those who have been vaccinated, the punitive-style policy has come as another kick in the guts.
Notably, the mandate covers aged-care staff, but not visitors, and it is an inconsistency that has left workers feeling unfairly singled out.
Joanne Blyth, a personal care assistant of seven years, told Aged Care News that despite willingly receiving the vaccine, the mandate is an unwelcome added pressure.
“Aged care staff are broken and exhausted especially during the COVID pandemic.
“Requests for ratios, recognition etc. are all ignored… however, aged care staff are now threatened with losing their very livelihood if they don’t hurry up or refuse vaccination.
“Why are aged care staff being bullied?”
Hayes said that the Health Services Union is championing an extension to the current September 17 deadline, to allow hesitant workers the time to consult with health care professional and health care department initiatives.
“I think they need at least two weeks to a month (more time) so they are able to target those individuals who do hold concerns or confusion, but to be able to deal with them in a dignified way, so they can really feel valued, rather than in a punitive way.”
Further information for aged care workers
The Department of Health confirmed with Aged Care News that in a very narrow set of circumstances, a temporary exemption may apply if an aged care worker can demonstrate every effort to access a vaccination by September 17, 2021 but is unable to due to supply or access limitations.
If your appointment is scheduled on September 17, you may still attend work that day, but must wear additional PPE including a mask and face shield.
The AHPPC recommended medical exemptions to align with the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) clinical guidance on COVID-19 vaccine in Australia in 2021.
Authorised medical practitioners (including General Practitioners) can notify the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) of an individual who has a vaccine exemption due to medical contraindications or natural immunity which will be displayed on an individual’s Immunisation History Statement (IHS).
This includes permanent vaccine exemption or temporary vaccine exemption until a specified date due to acute major illness, significant immunocompromise of short duration and pregnancy.
For those temporarily or permanently out of work, information about JobSeeker payment eligibility is available from the Services Australia website and is based on individual circumstances (eg. age, residence, income and asset tests).
Additional requirements such as rapid antigen testing or PCR testing for workers with exemptions entering a residential aged care service is a matter for individual states and territories as determined through their respective public health orders.