Rather, let’s support those people who are looking after the most vulnerable in our society. And if you have a loved one living in residential aged care, you will know that the potential spread of COVID-19 into their home is of grave concern, but not the only threat.
Every day, one in three aged care residents do not receive proper dementia care and have been chemically constrained. More than 70% of residents experience chronic constipation, and 58% have depression.
Of course, reports of an increasing number of workers in residential aged care in Sydney testing positive for COVID-19 have left many of us feeling real fear. Figures show that one third of residents in public aged care facilities who contracted COVID-19 died.
But it is vitally important that rather than turn on aged care workers, we give them practical assistance to do their jobs. In the short term, we must encourage workers to get vaccinated; and in the longer term, we need innovation to enable the provision of higher quality care.
While it was recently mandated that all residential aged care workers have at least one COVID-19 vaccination by mid-September 2021 to keep working, there is no Plan B. What if they don’t or can’t get vaccinated, who will care for more than 180,000 people in residential aged care? Already reports are that workers, many juggling more than one job, may refuse and walk away from the industry.
As with many of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, this mandate for all staff to be vaccinated places yet another burden on workers without a clear roadmap or the investment necessary to make it happen.
And let’s face the honest truth – the aged care workforce is already over worked and underpaid. For many English is not their first language and confusion over vaccine messaging from the government is well documented. Contrast this with the job they are expected to do.
Mostly, workers are caring for very frail people, with multiple serious health concerns. The task is huge – provide a safe environment, care in line with best practice, and deliver all with a high level of compassion. Yet from the royal commission, we know this is not the reality in numerous residential facilities despite the good intentions of many.
Let’s not fly blind at this critical juncture. Research, informed by consumers and the workforce, is the key to both the short-term vaccination challenge, as well as the longer-term quality of care issues.
Let’s talk to the staff and their unions and find out why many have not come forward to be vaccinated. Do we need a targeted education campaign to overcome fear and misinformation? Could we be vaccinating people where they work, at the same time as residents?
In the longer term, workforce changes are needed – more registered nurses, increased pay and improved conditions – and tools put in place to support higher quality care.
We also need to recognise that the additional audit requirements emanating from the royal commission’s findings, place an enormous burden on workers. Investing in the development of IT systems that automatically calculate the new national quality indicators, avoiding the need for duplicate data collection by workers as is the case currently, will deliver better information to monitor and guide care quality.
Using research to improve the aged care sector, is not just about meeting the challenges we face today. It is also about preparing for the future. If we do it well, there will be no place for blame.
Johanna Westbrook is the Director of the Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University and NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Leadership Fellow.
Article originally published on The Sydney Morning Herald. Republished with permission.