In the days following the announcement of the first positive COVID case at RFBI Hawkins Masonic Village, initial feelings of shock amongst staff were soon replaced with the realisation that this could – and eventually, would – happen to everyone.
While mainstream media covering the outbreak searched desperately for harrowing details to broadcast, resilient staff cast their own fears aside and worked tirelessly to support their residents.
Management, however, were left to try and adhere to rapidly changing and inconsistent health regulations, in addition to supporting their staff and keeping residents’ family members informed.
While RFBI’s success in containing the outbreak was hailed as a ‘minor miracle’ in the press, Frank Price, Chief Executive Officer of RFBI [Royal Freemasons’ Benevolent Institution], believes that positive outcomes came in spite of government regulation, not as a result of it.
“We can’t keep doing it the way that the government wants us to do it, because it doesn’t allow us to provide the best care to the residents. It’s just not sustainable and something’s got to give,” he said.
Conflicting advice between NSW Health and the federal Department of Health was an ongoing issue for RFBI, as they did their best to adhere to best practice guidelines throughout the outbreak at Hawkins.
In addition to a lack of clarity, Louanne Riboldi, Chief of Operations of RFBI, revealed that she was forced to email facilities on a daily basis in order to keep them informed of ongoing changes to COVID rules and regulations.
“It’s beyond confusing,” said Ms Riboldi.
Ms Riboldi added, “At RFBI we’ve got great clinical advisors to help us make those decisions but I’d hate to be a standalone provider in that situation.”
General Manager Larissa Williams was on the frontline throughout the outbreak and recalled the practical implications of dealing with conflicting health and safety advice.
“We were looking for guidance and clear direction from the experts so that we could achieve the best outcome possible for our residents and staff. When the experts don’t agree, it makes things very difficult.,” said Ms Williams.
RFBI Chief Executive Officer, Frank Price echoed his colleague’s sentiments and called upon the government to provide a clear and concise explanation of what they expect aged to be, moving forward.
“What are the expectations of each of the parties that are involved, should there be an outbreak? What does it mean from an aged care provider’s perspective? We’ve been calling out for this now since August.”
Unfortunately, inconsistent hospital regulations also pose a significant threat to facilities, as some sites test returning-aged-care-residents for COVID before they leave the hospital, while others do not.
Recently, RFBI was forced to isolate a man who returned from hospital after it was revealed that his former hospital roommate tested positive for COVID, information that only became available when the roommate was transferred to another hospital where COVID testing is done.
According to Chief Executive Officer Frank Price, the cost of using rapid antigen testing across all of their facility locations is an astronomical $55,000 per week – which only covers the cost of testing staff.
RFBI has also spent upwards of $4 million on additional PPE since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as the costs associated with furloughing 57 staff members during the Hawkins outbreak in August.
“That is just not sustainable. A lot of providers cannot afford to buy the PPE that we bought, and a lot of providers cannot afford to have the rapid antigen testing that we have, so as a result, a lot of providers continue to be at risk for outbreaks.”
Although aged care will continue to be increasingly important to Australia’s rapidly ageing population, it is not currently recognised by the government as an essential service.
This lack of recognition is a continual frustration for aged care workers who have stood as the last line of defence for the country’s most vulnerable people throughout the pandemic.
“Aged care providers are propping up the government. We get so little respect, that we can’t even recoup the cost of the staff that we had to furlough on leave during the outbreak. It’s not deemed as part of the grant that they’ll pay.”
“It makes it very hard for providers.”
As two of the frontline staff members throughout the Hawkins outbreak and the NSW lockdown, Regional Manager Toni Giles and General Manager Larissa Williams witnessed the significant impact that social isolation can have on aged care residents.
“We’ve been in lockdown such a long time,” said Ms Giles
“We had a program where we put on additional staff to spend more time with residents during lockdown, but the residents’ mental health definitely suffered.”
General Manager Larissa Williams was quick to point out that lockdown continues to have a residual effect on the mental health of some of their residents.
While aged care facilities around the country scrambled for ideas to help stave off isolation and boredom for residents in lockdown, Frank Price confessed to engaging in a ‘fight’ with the Department of Health as part of his efforts to allow his residents to take a bus trip.
Despite the fact that older people living in the community were able to go on drives throughout the lockdown, Mr Price revealed that RFBI were threatened with sanctions if the residents left the confines of the facility.
“All of our residents live together and they weren’t going to leave the bus, but they weren’t allowed to see the local sites like anyone else in their 80s who is able to drive. If the government wants to help, let’s start with not discriminating against people in care.”
Mr Price concluded, “Aged care is treated like the poor relation of the health industry and I think ageism has a lot to do with it.”