More than 30 coronavirus complaints in five months, but just one spot check for Tasmanian aged care

The federal aged care regulator conducted just one spot check on Tasmanian facilities in five months — despite receiving more than 30 complaints related to the deadly coronavirus pandemic during that time.

New figures tabled in Federal Parliament show the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission received 98 complaints about Tasmanian aged care facilities between March and early August, 31 of them related to COVID-19.

Only one out of four site visits in that time was an unannounced check.

In the same period, a 79-year-old woman who lived at Melaleuca Home for the Aged in East Devonport died after testing positive for the virus. That home has not been visited by the regulator since last November.

Federal Labor aged care spokeswoman Julie Collins said it was “completely unacceptable” that spot checks on Tasmanian facilities had only started last month.

“The Minister [Richard Colbeck] is Tasmanian,” Ms Collins said.

Senator Colbeck — who has come under fire for his handling of the Aged Care portfolio during the coronavirus pandemic — did not respond to a request for comment.

Council On The Ageing Tasmania chief executive Sue Leitch said while she welcomed 37 recent unannounced visits, they were “well overdue”.

“We’ve certainly had people contacting us that are concerned about a range of different things during the COVID infection period, and not necessarily related just to COVID infection control,” Ms Leitch said.

Canberra Hospital CEO Janet Evans looks to the side during a press conference.
Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson says Tasmania’s aged care providers had been subject to phone assessments.(ABC News: Jake Evans)

In a statement, Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson said processes related to spot checks changed between mid-March to June to minimise infection risks.

All of the state’s aged care providers had been assessed for COVID-19 preparedness over the phone, Ms Anderson said.

On the 98 complaints related to Tasmania, Ms Anderson said: “One complaint can consist of more than one issue raised.

“[More than 100] complaint issues associated with these complaints were finalised to the satisfaction of the complainant and/or further monitoring or determining that the service had taken steps to address the issues.”

‘Really scary time’ for aged care home

Speaking publicly for the first time since Tasmania’s deadly north-west outbreak, Melaleuca Home for the Aged chief executive Simone Collins said it had been a “devastating” period for everyone.

More than 20 staff were quarantined during the April period, meaning agencies were required to supply interstate and intrastate help.

Ms Collins it was near impossible to source additional personal protective equipment until the Federal Government appointed a coordinator specifically to help with supply.

She praised state and federal authorities for their swift involvement after a staff member tested positive and said the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission was in phone contact during and after the broader north-west Tasmanian coronavirus cluster.

“It was a really scary time but at the end of it we got through because we worked together,” Ms Collins said.

The Melaleuca resident who died was believed to have contracted the virus from the staff member, who worked at three aged care facilities as well as the North West Regional Hospital.

Each of the three aged care homes — Melaleuca, Eliza Purton Home in West Ulverstone and Coroneagh Park at Penguin — isolated and tested all employees and residents after the staff member returned a positive test.

Melaleuca had been screening staff for one month before the unwell but asymptomatic employee entered the home.

“Most people have the virus before they even know it, and that was the unfortunate situation with us,” Ms Collins said.

Premier Peter Gutwein has repeatedly pointed to the preparedness of the state’s aged care sector to deal with a second outbreak as one reason to keep Tasmanian borders closed.

Ms Collins said surge staffing was a consideration at her 48-bed facility, with about 20 per cent of its staff casual workers.

The home has plans “constantly under review” and ready to be enacted if coronavirus hits the community or the home again.

a woman stands in front of a large gum tree.
COTA Tasmania CEO Sue Leitch is concerned about the high number of casual workers in aged care.(ABC News: Laura Bevis)

“We as an organisation are ensuring that if there is community transmission that we would not engage staff who are working at other facilities as well,” Ms Collins said.

Ms Leitch said the high number of casual workers in aged care was a concern in Tasmania, adding a second outbreak would be a “real test”.

“It’s a complex area and certainly something we need to be aware of,” Ms Leitch said.