An aged care nurse who contracted COVID-19 while working inside a Melbourne nursing home said staff weren’t given proper training in infection control and how to use personal protective equipment (PPE).
- A worker in a Melbourne nursing home who contracted COVID-19 says staff weren’t properly trained in how to use PPE
- The registered nurse defended the role of aged care workers in the crisis
- The Royal Commission has warned Australia remains unprepared to handle the coronavirus in aged care.
It comes amid urgent calls to introduce mandatory PPE training requirements and a ‘one-worker one-site’ policy across every Australian aged care home to prevent even more coronavirus deaths.
Rhonda O’Brien is one of more than 1,100 Victorian aged care workers who have contracted coronavirus after working five shifts last month at a Melbourne nursing home, which she has asked not to be named.
It is now known that one in four Melbourne nursing homes have a coronavirus outbreak. Nationally, nursing home deaths account for 70 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 death toll.
When Ms O’Brien, a registered nurse, went to the nursing home for her first shift, there were two infected residents. Within a month, the number had grown to over 50 staff and residents.
“The residents wandering around without masks were concerning. I tried to avoid them, but there were occasions when I couldn’t avoid them because I had to care for them,” she told 7.30.
Ms O’Brien is still recovering from COVID-19 and is fearful about the long-term effects to her health.
She is speaking out as she believes staff earning around $23 per hour are being unfairly blamed for outbreaks, particularly given they were not required to undertake mandatory training about how to use PPE.
“Some of the staff weren’t sure about when to change gloves for instance, and going from room to room with the same pair of gloves on,” she said.
“You could see some people touching their masks and then going into a room. The carers are great, but they didn’t always follow best practice because they didn’t have enough instruction.
“If you leave that instruction until the pandemic hits, you haven’t got time to educate anyone.”
Urgent calls for national overhaul
The Federal Government has produced an online training resource on preventing infection spread in aged care, but it is currently not mandatory to watch.
In Victoria, staff are now able to get free hands-on training in infection control, but that is not being rolled out nationally, with a spokesman for the Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck saying infection control is up to the provider.
Nursing home staff around the country continue to move between multiple aged care facilities and crucial training in how to use PPE remains optional, despite evidence these have been critical factors in Melbourne’s coronavirus crisis.
As an emergency measure to stop the spread of the virus, the Federal Government is paying aged care providers in Melbourne until September to keep staff working at just one home.
The Aged Care Guild, an association with thousands of members working across 300 aged care sites, have called on the federal and state governments to expand a ‘one-worker one-site’ principle nationally, as well as making full PPE mandatory in all aged care homes around the country
South Australia announced on Thursday that it will enforce mandatory PPE requirements and ban workers moving between aged care settings, but those restrictions do not come into effect for another fortnight.
“I think we’re kidding ourselves that we can avoid a catastrophe that this country has never seen before,” said Gerard Hayes, national president of the Health Services Union, representing aged care workers.
“Do we sit back and wait and react or do we become proactive and prevent it?”
Leading Age Services Australia, a leading industry group, also supported banning workers from working across sites in hotspots.
In a statement, Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said such a ban was the responsibility of local authorities.
“Restrictions on mobility of the workforce are informed by state and territory government directions in the context of local conditions and circumstances,” said Mr Colbeck.
“Other than in the outbreak areas where the Victorian and New South Wales Governments have declared they should be used, PPE should be worn in any facility with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 in line with infection control procedures.”
Government accused of ‘piecemeal and reactive’ planning
Speaking before the Royal Commission into Aged Care on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary for Aging and Aged Care Michael Lye conceded training standards could be better enforced.
“There was an expectation that [staff] were proficient with PPE, which we supplemented with training,” said Mr Lye.
“I don’t think in any communication we have said this is a ‘nice to do’ not a ‘must do’.
“But if you look at the havoc COVID has wrought in areas where there is large community transmission, there’s no doubt we could do more to make sure our workforce is prepared for such an eventuality. I think that is a learning.”
At the same hearing, Secretary of Health and former Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy was pressed on why it took until July 13 for masks to become compulsory in Victorian aged care settings.
“In hindsight, you could have implemented that earlier,” said Professor Murphy.
The concession comes as the Federal Government — which oversees the $13.3 billion dollar sector — continues to defend itself amid criticism over its preparedness to deal with a widespread COVID-19 outbreak.
On Thursday, Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Peter Rozen QC, said the Government’s response was “piecemeal and reactive” and emphasised a lack of proper planning.
Brendan Murphy has rejected claims the Government had not done enough to prepare aged care, while Health Minister Greg Hunt has said the industry was “immensely prepared” for COVID-19.
Mr Rozen said the Government was guilty of “self-congratulation and hubris” and decried a lack of urgency on the part of the sector, which he said was “still not properly prepared.”
“There is no reason why our government should be scrambling now,” he said.
“This should have been put in place in February.”
Aged care deaths may define pandemic
For all the devastation the coronavirus pandemic has caused — the lives, livelihoods and public life it has irreparably damaged — it will be Australia’s aged care sector where the overwhelming majority of deaths are likely to occur.
There are over 2,000 active COVID-19 cases across 125 Victorian aged care settings.
Aged care residents make up around two-thirds of the ever-increasing daily death toll, now being tweeted out by a Victorian Government account each morning.
In the two weeks since Daniel Andrews declared he had no confidence in the private aged care sector’s ability to handle the COVID-19 crisis, a raft of urgent measures have been ushered in.
The ADF were enlisted to help transport over 400 residents — the majority of whom were COVID-positive — from their homes into hospitals.
Victorian government-registered nurses have since worked over 1,400 shifts inside private aged care facilities to regain some control over the crisis.
On Thursday, the Victorian Government assumed control over a further three Melbourne private aged care homes experiencing serious outbreaks.
But for a sector becoming increasingly used to public excoriation, there are still signs it is faltering in its attempts to prepare for further outbreaks.
Piles of used PPE seen at aged care home
The ABC has been told basic COVID-19 precautions are not being implemented in some aged care homes — including one facility in Melbourne photographed with what appears to be bags of used PPE piled haphazardly in public areas.
ABC Investigations received photos taken in late July at VMCH Berwick, a Catholic nursing home in Melbourne’s south-east, which show garbage bags believed to contain PPE in walkways and cupboards.
When contacted by the ABC, the aged care residence said it was due to “a short-term disruption in waste collection” during a time of unprecedented demand.
VMCH said four of its residents tested positive to COVID-19 on August 2 but each have been isolated and are currently, “feeling well and not displaying any symptoms.”
“Our specialist waste-management contractor is now safely retrieving medical waste once or twice a day, rather than weekly as was the case prior to the pandemic.”
Anger over transparency
There also continues to be frustration with the way aged care outbreaks are reported.
Cheryle Whittle’s 77-year-old mother Sandra is stuck inside one of Victoria’s 125 private aged care homes hit by COVID-19.
Until earlier this week, Mecwacare John Atchison Hoppers Crossing in Melbourne’s west, where Sandra lives, had been publicly named on July 29 as having two coronavirus cases, despite families of residents being told the number of cases was far greater.
After being contacted by ABC 7.30, the Victorian health department said there are 52 cases at the Mecwacare facility, of which 41 are residents. Emails sent to families state that three people have died.
“I want to know, when it got in there, how it got in there [and] why didn’t we get a chance to get mum out of there?” said Cheryle Whittle.
Mecwacare did not answer questions about the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths.
In Victoria, only aged care homes with the worst outbreaks are being reported to the public each day.
At a senate inquiry last week, Brendan Murphy said there were “reputational issues” involved in naming each aged care home with a COVID case, while Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said he was reluctant to provide what he suggested would be a “public hit list of facilities” with outbreaks.
Gerrard Hayes from the Health Workers Union accused the Government of attempting to downplay the crisis.
“We’re headed for catastrophe,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s anywhere near under control. In fact, I think over the coming weeks and potentially months, we’re going to see things get worse.”
Watch the full story on ABC 7.30