Feb 02, 2022

Health minister Greg Hunt accused of disrespecting aged care COVID deaths

Health minister Greg Hunt
Photo: Courtesy of ABC News.

The Guardian Australia reports that staff have described them as “astonishing” and “disrespectful” and showcase a downplaying of the situation by politicians.

Monday saw Mr Hunt front the issue of rising mortality numbers in aged care. So far 473 aged care COVID-associated deaths have been reported in the 31 days of January.

Mr Hunt began, “The latest advice that I have is that approximately 60% of those that have agonisingly passed have been in palliative care.” 

Continuing he said, “The definition is that they have passed with COVID, and they are absolutely rightly counted as a national loss. But approximately 60% of those that have passed were in palliative care.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) federal secretary, Annie Butler, described his words as “astonishing”. 

“To turn around and say basically, ‘you were just going to die anyway,’ rather than acknowledging that they died faster and in difficult conditions because the government didn’t look after them well enough.”

She adds, “The comments are just outrageous because elderly people can be in palliative care for a week, for two weeks, or even years, and the aim is to make sure the person has the best life they can have in that time. 

“Letting COVID rip through homes and these people become infected is hardly delivering people the best quality of life that they can have.”

Many of the aged care residences recording elevated numbers of deaths, contacted by The Guardian Australia, outlined that the majority who had passed away had significant underlying health concerns, and COVID-19 was not seen to be the central cause of death. 

However, Ms Butler highlights that residents who had contracted the virus would have been placed into isolation, likely unable to have family with them in their last days.

She explains, “So the fact that they are palliative or have other conditions is irrelevant, aside from asking, how much did COVID hasten their death?”

This response was in relation to a query surrounding details of those who had passed away in aged care.

Continuing they said, “However, like the rest of the community and what occurred in previous waves of the pandemic, when there are increased cases in the population, they will be reflected in the cases in aged care.

“Aged care facilities have been required to implement infection control training and it is encouraging that despite the increase in cases, there has not been the same level of increase in illness or loss of life, with most facilities indicating that the cases have been milder at this stage.”

The figure the minister was drawing from is related to ongoing data contributed to by states and territories on loss of life in residential aged care homes. 

The data highlights that of the deaths from COVID, 61% occurred in palliative care. Regarding the 73% of those who died while being fully vaccinated, 63% were in palliative care. Regarding all who passed away, 73% were fully vaccinated and 8% had received a partial vaccination. 

In relation to data on the percentage of residents in aged care facilities who had been administered their booster dose, neither health minister Mr Hunt nor minister for senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, offered any comment.

Ms Butler recalls how this is not an uncommon approach for politicians, to mention that those who had died of COVID in aged care did so while in palliative care. 

Last August saw the prime minister, Scott Morrison, react to a query about the struggling aged care sector exacerbated by COVID through commenting, “For those of us who have had to make decisions about putting our own family, our own parents, into aged care, we have known that when we’ve done that we are putting them into pre-palliative care. We know it won’t be long in many cases … ”

The Aged and Community Services Australia CEO, Paul Sadler, notes that every individual resident within an aged care facility is entitled to the highest possible level of care, including measures and protection against additional challenges such as COVID and further infections. 

He highlights, “The government must prioritise the health and wellbeing of older people, and this can be done by ensuring that the services and care they depend on is run by a safe, fully staffed and fully supported workforce.”

Dr Sarah Russell, the public health researcher and director of Aged Care Matters, conveys that regardless of the exact cause of death, those dying in aged care residences who had contracted COVID-19 were being locked down and isolated, cut off from loved ones. 

“It’s traumatising families and it’s such an awful way to die,” she argues. 

“These people, they have died under terrible, preventable circumstances.”

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  1. This government believes $22 per hour is a fair wage for age care staff. Staff are leaving in droves. Poor pay and blame from media and public. Everyone has had enough. Put money into skill mix and staffing levels. Profits need to go back into raising standards and supporting residents and staff. Stop disrespecting our elderly.

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