Dec 05, 2022

COVID-19 cases in aged care growing as Christmas approaches

COVID-19 cases in aged care growing as Christmas approaches

As the rising number of COVID-19 cases has aged care residents at risk of another pandemic-interrupted Christmas, aged care staff and visitors have been asked to take precautionary measures to protect residents.

A total of 4,381 active resident and staff cases were reported on 1 December by the Department of Health and Aged Care’s National snapshot, 75% more cases than at the start of November.

Approximately 200 new facility outbreaks have been reported in each of the last three weeks and the rapid rise has aged care providers worried after residents spent last Christmas isolated from their families due to severe lockdown restrictions.

However, aged care consultant and former Interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Aged and Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA), Paul Sadler, said providers now hold the necessary experience to avoid those lockdowns.

“The majority of residents will want contact with family and friends, they’ll want to go on outings during that time. Focusing on where you can help facilitate that is really important,” said Mr Sadler.

“Most homes in Australia have experienced an outbreak during the lifetime of COVID-19. 

“They can use that experience to focus on meeting resident needs and wants throughout the Christmas period.”

There are currently 642 active outbreaks in aged care facilities across Australia, but Mr Sadler remained confident that residents would be supported by increased precautionary measures such as wearing masks or checking the health status of visitors. 

Residential aged care provider, HammondCare, is one organisation that has increased its screening of staff and visitors as case numbers rise.

HammondCare General Manager Residential Care and Dementia, Angela Raguz, said they are determined to provide staff and residents with a safe holiday experience. 

“Like many aged care providers, HammondCare is currently experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases,” said Ms Raguz.

“In response, we are reinforcing staff training in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), increasing screening vigilance and rapid antigen testing (RAT) staff regularly.

“We continue to allow visitors. Throughout the pandemic, HammondCare has, wherever possible, enabled essential visits to continue in a measured and intelligent way to ensure the social wellbeing of residents.”

“We are managing Christmas parties to minimise risk of COVID-19 infection and are determined to ensure loved ones and residents can safely enjoy the holiday period.”

There is widespread belief among the aged care sector that the public will play its part in looking after vulnerable residents during the holiday season as well. 

Aged and Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Tom Symondson, told the Sydney Morning Herald that now is the time for providers and the public to work together to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We are concerned about the case numbers, but we’ve also got so much more experience now than we did a year or two ago with outbreaks,” said Mr Symondson.

“A year ago, people were used to restrictions, but now, although COVID-19 feels like a memory for most people, in aged care we are still needing to take precautions.

“Remember, we are dealing with very vulnerable people. We don’t want another Christmas where people in aged care aren’t able to see their family, that was appalling and none of us want to see it happen again. 

“But we’ve just got to do the right thing.”

Visitors are being recommended to wear a mask when visiting aged care facilities, avoid visiting when sick, and be up to date with the latest vaccination requirements.

Unlike last year’s Christmas, families can see a loved one during an outbreak through the Essential Visitor rule, in which one person can visit at any time.

Mr Sadler said essential visitors would be extremely beneficial for residents who could be exposed to the virus in the lead-up to Christmas, but reaffirmed that visitors still need to be respectful of facility policies.

“It is really important that the public pay respect to the requirements put in place by providers even if they’re not mandatory to follow,” said Mr Sadler.

“They’re put in place in the best interest of older people and we shouldn’t be complaining about that.”

Mr Sadler also praised staff for their role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as staff numbers are far below the January peak of 14,257.

Health experts are confident that the current peak will not reach those same heights when almost 10,000 active cases were reported as aged care residents.

Instead, recently arrived subvariants BQ.1 and XBB that have merged with BA.2 and BA.5 sub-lineages appear to have triggered a broad yet steady rise in COVID-19 infections. 

Associate Professor of Epidemiological Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the University of New South Wales, James Wood, said he was positive that hospitalisations have declined and he expected cases to peak in mid-December.

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