Nov 16, 2020

Bupa Edithvale staff are calling for further study into the pandemic response

On July 16th, a care worker at Bupa’s Edithvale resident home presented with cold and flu symptoms. What would follow were long and arduous months, battling to trace, contain, and manage a coronavirus outbreak that would ultimately take the lives of 18 residents. 

As staff at the Edithvale care home continue to heal and regroup after the devastation, they’re calling for further studies into the government’s pandemic response, and why they were left feeling abandoned. 

When the care worker first received a positive result, the home’s general manager, Lexie Dennis, described the care home as entering “full-blown outbreak mode”.

“We had a 24-hour response plan to get PPE [personal protective equipment] in place, made phone calls to every family member, got communication out to staff and reported it to DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] and the Federal Government,” she said, speaking to the ABC.

“We went above and beyond, what we tried to do to contain it, and it still got through.”

As the rest of the staff expected the DHHS to begin testing throughout the facility, Lexie was surprised to discover that that was not the case. Instead, they were advised to wait out in case testing too early would miss “cases that are brewing.” 

“We thought they would be testing straight away, but apparently no, that is not what they do,” Lexie said. 

With the waiting game started, the home began taking their own precautions, refusing to allow a delay until the DHHS was ready to offer support. They quickly implemented their own contact tracing protocols, realising that the infected team member had come into contact with at least 27 residents before realising he was sick. This in home contact tracing continued through July, into August and September. 

“There wasn’t too much contact tracing assistance from the [Victorian health] department at all, we had to really undertake our own contacting tracing and then we would send our spreadsheets of information through to DHHS,” Lexie said.

According to the DHHS, they were alerted of the positive result on the Friday, the same day the result was registered, by Saturday they had appointed a case manager for the Edithvale home, Sunday saw pathology services heading out to the home to conduct testing, with the first results being received by the Monday and Tuesday the following week. This left five days with an unknown number of infections within the home. 

This delay put the home on the back foot in their attempts to contain the virus at a time when the state was a quarter of the way through the second wave that proved devastating for aged care. According to the ABC, the department said “at the time the demand for COVID-19 pathology testing in Victoria was unprecedented”.

As the number of infections increased in the Edithvale home, the only communication they had with the DHHS was through a 1800-number which was then randomly allocated to a staff member manning the phones at the time. This meant they never knew who they were going to talk to. 

Eventually, general manager Lexie became one of the 34 staff members to be infected. She then found out that her husband and one of her daughters had also contracted the virus. 

“It was the sickest I have ever felt,” she said.

“The emotional burden of being the one who brought it into our family was difficult to bear.

“It was just really hard emotionally to know I am the manager of the home and I am stuck at home unwell and feeling like I had kind of abandoned our ship,” she said.

Lexie continued to work from home on her laptop during this time, but she was never contacted by the DHHS about her own close contacts. According to the ABC, the department said that they do contact all positive staff members, however they didn’t say whether all staff from Edithvale had been contacted for contact tracing. 

As the virus continued to spread throughout the facility, and more and more staff members were forced into quarantine or receiving positive results, the home scrambled to keep up. Bupa went so far as to fly down managers and carers from around Victoria and interstate to help with the outbreak. 

“If you thought about the risks of what you are doing, you would probably break down,” said Lexie.

“It was like you were in a war zone and you just had your tasks to do for the day and the staff would get that done.”

Finally, after four weeks of the quickly spreading outbreak, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission took action. 

They sent out a notice requiring a number of restrictions be placed on the home, due to “immediate and severe risk to the health, safety or wellbeing of care recipients”. These restrictions included not admitting new residents, following health authority directions, daily meetings with the Commission, and reporting back to the Commission. 

The home immediately took the restrictions on board, and the notice was lifted four days later. 

Lexie said that even with their “experienced and caring staff” and the medical support offered within the company, they still struggled to manage the outbreak. 

“The Commission effectively set aside the notice with no action taken as it was satisfied that we had implemented appropriate outbreak management strategies and mitigated any risks identified during the course of the outbreak,” she said.

After the Commission lifted the notice, the outbreak continued for another month within the home. 

In just two months, 34 staff and 44 residents had been infected with coronavirus. Eighteen residents died due to those infections. In a home of 70 residents, Lexie described the loss as devastating. 

“When you were sending residents off to hospital knowing that that could be the last time we see them, I get shivers just thinking about it again,” she said.

“We work in aged care, we know that we are going to lose residents but not to this scale, that is the part that was really unsettling.”

By 16 September, the Bupa Edithvale care home was declared COVID-free. 

In a statement released by Bupa, Lexie said, “From the bottom of our hearts, I just want to thank everyone near and far who have supported us in any form along the way. We couldn’t have done this alone. To have family support, resident support and the support of the wider Bupa community has been the key to us getting through this.”

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