We may have entered a new year, but with the spread of Omicron impacting thousands of residential aged care facilities, the challenges of last year are proving stubbornly persistent.
Sean Rooney, chief executive officer of Leading Aged Services Australia (LASA), tells Aged Care News that the pressure from this new variant is only compounding existing issues within the aged care sector.
“Since the Omicron surge the situation has become even more acute, leaving aged care services around the country reeling, putting care for older Australians at risk due to chronic staffing shortages,” he says.
“Older people are at risk of missing out on essential care because of this.”
“Crisis point” for aged care workforce
Providing care for vulnerable, older Australians requires an adequate workforce, and Rooney says that policy must address both the current COVID crisis, as well as existing issues.
“LASA and other aged care peak bodies under the banner of the Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC) have been actively advocating, with unions, for action to support wage increases for staff and improved training, particularly in the wake of the royal commission final report almost a year ago,” he says.
“With severe staff shortages happening across all sectors, services for older Australians must be prioritised.
“There are services that older people depend on that are not being delivered simply because there is not enough staff.”
Recognising that aged care workers “are burnt out” and resigning, he notes a number of necessary measures required to alleviate the crisis:
- immediate surge workforce support where requested;
- a COVID-19 payment for all furloughed staff; and
- resolution of ongoing issues regarding access to RAT and PPE supplies.
“This current crisis exposes unresolved systemic funding and workforce issues,” Rooney says.
Government opaque on booster campaign progress
The health department divulged to Aged Care News in December that “more than 57,000 people living in residential aged care have received more than two doses”.
Aged Care News is currently awaiting a response from the department as to the numbers at time of writing, but Rooney indicates that significant progress has been made over the last month.
“There are no figures publicly available for the rate of booster vaccinations among aged residents, although the Government says they plan to have in reach clinics for all residential aged care homes concluded by the end of January 2022,” he says.
“Anecdotally, LASA hears from its members that about 80 per cent of residents eligible for a booster shot have been vaccinated where these in reach clinics have been hosted.”
A spokesperson for the department also notes not many residents are receiving their boosters through their local healthcare network.
“We are also aware that many residents have received their booster through their local GP or pharmacy which is in addition to the commonwealth-led in-reach clinics,” they said.
It is unclear at this stage why the department of health has not released data pertaining to booster shots within its COVID-19 vaccination daily roll-out updates, which still indicates aged care residents as “fully vaccinated” after receiving two dose, despite experts continually reiterating otherwise.
Rooney also notes that mandatory reporting by providers of worker booster vaccinations has not yet commenced.
“Some jurisdictions have now mandated worker vaccination but deadlines have not yet been reached,” he says.
Urgent solutions needed for RAT and PPE shortages
“Access to PPE and RATs remain a critical issue for providers, with the department of health giving priority to providing supplies to those sites experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak,” Rooney says.
With many providers in dire need, he says that LASA staff have been meeting with departmental ministers several times a week.
“[We’ve been] … pressing the case and providing examples of the need for a more efficient distribution of RATs and PPE to residential aged care providers as soon as possible.”
The health department has reassured LASA that the supply chain issues which have hampered distribution are being addressed.
“The situation improved in the past week in some locations, but there is still much more work to do,” Rooney says.
“Although the Government announced plans for distribution of RATs to all residential aged care providers shortly before Christmas on December 23, proactive distribution to services not experiencing an outbreak has not yet fully commenced.”
2022 will see continued collaboration between LASA, ACSA, other provider groups
With an announcement late last year that LASA, Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) and other provider groups will merge into a single, unitary body, it will be a busy year for the groups.
Whilst no date can be given as to when the amalgamation will be finalised, meetings have commenced.
“ACSA and LASA are committed to working together to realise a new and better way to represent and develop our sector,” Rooney says.
“LASA and ACSA executive teams have been meeting and working through how this might be achieved and developing the ‘case for change’ for our members’ consideration.
“This also includes engaging with other relevant provider groups.
“We are planning to conduct a webinar in February for members from both organisations to come together to explore the opportunities and advantages of a single, industry association for aged care.
“Following this, further detailed planning will be conducted ahead of a formal proposition being put to the Members of our respective organisations.”