The Morrison Government has commended workers across Australia’s aged care sector for their extraordinary commitment to protect themselves and those they care for.
As the first sector to benefit from a national approach to mandatory vaccinations, the Government said staff at residential aged care facilities nationwide have shown leadership and a willingness to put others first.
Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, and Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, said the uptake in vaccinations has provided a blueprint for others to follow.
Hunt said residential aged care workers are leading the nation’s overall vaccination rates.
“It is encouraging that almost all residential aged care workers have taken action to protect themselves, their communities and the senior Australians in their care,” he said.
“It is a reflection of the commitment of the workforce and the partnership between the Government, aged care peaks and unions in supporting the mandatory vaccination order.”
While every life lost to COVID-19 is tragic, the increasing rate of vaccination across the aged care workforce has had a clear impact when the number of deaths in residential aged care this year are compared to the first wave of the virus in 2020.
To date, 95.8 per cent of residential aged care workers have received a first dose of a COVID‑19 vaccine; 76.9 per cent of workers are fully vaccinated.
These rates are higher than those across the community and the Government said this reflects the determination of staff and administrators.
It also represents one of the highest workforce vaccination rates in the world.
Careful compliance measures will take effect once weekly figures are updated on September 22, in line with the state and territory public health orders on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in residential aged care.
Facilities where employees are yet to complete their vaccination will now become the focus of further specific in-reach clinics.
LASA CEO Sean Rooney said there are a few areas where the vaccination rate needs to pick up and LASA is working with the Federal Health Department and the Vaccine Taskforce to ensure staff get access to the vaccine now that supplies are more readily available.
“In the eight weeks since the Prime Minister announced that a first dose vaccination would be mandatory for all residential aged care workers by September 17 there has been a concerted effort by providers and workers to respond,” Rooney said.
“We in the aged care sector know better than most that COVID-19 can be devastating and have been calling for the vaccination of our workforce to be a priority.
“There is a small number of staff with valid reasons for not being vaccinated either due to medical reasons, or because they haven’t been able to gain access to a vaccine before the deadline.
“We are working with the Government to ensure that there is continuity of care and that quality of care is not compromised. I note that in some cases, under the State and Territory public health orders, temporary exemptions will be in place to allow staff to keep working, provided they have a valid exemption.”
MRooney said that LASA and the aged care sector will continue to work with the Government to achieve full vaccination of all residential aged care staff and to progress further supports to ensure that home care staff are encouraged and enabled to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
“Home care staff are the next front line that should have been among those in the high priority group to be vaccinated first, announced by the Government back in February,” Rooney said.
“We look forward to developing supports with the Government to assist home care staff with vaccinations.”
The public health orders give effect to National Cabinet’s decision on June 28 this year to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory in residential aged care, informed by the expert medical advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).
Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, expressed his thanks to the aged care workforce, providers, provider peak bodies and worker representatives for their efforts.
“It has been a significant effort from all concerned,” Colbeck said.
“I thank them and congratulate them.”
He said the next step was to ensure providers correctly reported vaccination rates and any authorised exemptions via the My Age Care Portal.
“The Government, through the Department of Health and with the support of the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, will engage directly with providers and individual facilities to discuss the vaccination and exemption data to clarify if there are any unvaccinated workers or where there may be exemptions that may apply,” Colbeck said.
“While the data shows only a small number of workers may choose to not be vaccinated and leave the sector, facilities will need to demonstrate measures are in place to ensure continued quality of care and appropriate COVID-19 preparation and risk management.
“This will be done in a careful and constructive manner.”
Facilities will be required to confirm and implement strategies for addressing non-medical exemptions and ensuring plans are in place for workers yet to be vaccinated within a limited period.
Approved providers are responsible for ensuring the ongoing delivery of safe and quality care to residents at all times – including staffing their services appropriately.
Where providers experience a shortage of staff, the Government said there are a range of options available including to call on or expand arrangements with external recruitment agencies to ensure their services are adequately staffed.
Providers of facilities which fail to meet the requirements may face regulatory action via the Commission or penalties in line with state or territory public health orders.
The mandatory vaccination deadline and increasing vaccination rates in the community also marks an important opportunity for aged care administrators to review their rules around visitation, ensuring residents, particularly those with dementia, have access to family and friends.
Providers have an important responsibility to support visitation by adopting screening protocols, encouraging the use of masks, and monitoring the use of common areas to support social distancing.
Providers can access Aged Care Visitation guidelines here.
The Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes during COVID-19 can be found here.