With support workers increasingly unable to work from illness or isolation needs, Brisbane mum Sue Grier describes an industry reeling – with one in six Australians, like her own child, now at risk.
Sue, a staff member in the sector, shared her experience with 9Honey Parenting, detailing how her 36-year-old-autistic son, William, has been left mid-shift as support workers quickly exit after receiving news of their positive test.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Sue tells of multiple families who have been left abandoned with no support, another consequence of the Omicron outbreak.
She continues, “However, my son is one of the lucky ones. He has his mum and his sister and we’re really strong advocates in the disability sector.
William has Down’s syndrome and has been diagnosed with autism, and currently he lives on his own. He has routinely been supported by a team of 10 support workers, however, recently only half of that number have been available.
Following new government stipulations surrounding close contact rules, PCR and rapid antigen testing, many support workers have had no choice but to isolate due to COVID-19 exposure.
With an already exacerbated NDIS sector due to the pandemic, it has become evident that replacing these staff is an ‘impossibility’ as major nationwide staff shortages continue.
‘We are being smashed’
CEO and founder of Kynd, Michael Metcalfe – an online platform that coordinates support workers with NDIS participants – describes how his company is barely managing while at the core of the crisis.
He says, “We are being smashed – requests for support worker services are up 110% in the last 48 hours.”
The numbers aren’t small. Falling sick, or forced to isolate, hundreds of essential NDIS support workers have been cancelling shifts. The one in six Australians who rely on NDIS help are being left stranded.
Metcalfe evaluates, “We’ve never seen this level of sudden demand.”
Sue agrees, believing the sector is at a “crisis point”.
“The issue is not simply just being down a few staff, but that this leads to major disruptions to the necessary care William needs and his general health.”
The newly implemented rules surrounding what constitutes a ‘close contact’ has also brought on confusion, additionally, compounded by the difficulty to source RAT tests, doing the ‘right’ thing has become increasingly difficult.
Sue outlines, “We can’t get tests, they’re nowhere. So how can we ensure that we are COVID negative? There’s just no way to do it.”
Metcalfe highlights the lack of accessibility when it comes to RAT tests. This situation is hitting the disability sector forcefully as the majority of workers and NDIS participants have neither the time nor money to spend the hours necessary to source the available tests.
Metcalfe explains, “Most NDIS participants and support workers are unable to ‘fight it out’ for [rapid antigen] tests,”
“[And] without access to rapid antigen tests people will be cancelling support unnecessarily, or worse, they will continue to go to work, unknowingly contributing to the spread.”
‘It’s getting really grim’
As an experienced disability sector employee herself, Sue shares how she has been assisting worried families “non-stop” over social media.
She says, “I’ve had non-stop private messages through social media over the last 72 hours from NDIS participants and their family members.
‘He would not cope’
Sue is bothered most by the knowledge and thoughts for those with disabilities, who don’t have the immediate support of family to care for them.
Highlighting them, she says, “There are a lot of people out there with disabilities who go through it all alone. I have no idea what’s being offered to them.”
“That’s probably the scariest thing.”
Another significant concern Sue is contending with is the future possibility of William contracting COVID-19.
She worries, “If William had to go to hospital due to COVID-19, he wouldn’t understand. He would feel abandoned and he would not cope.
“They would have to tie him to a bed. He would think he was deserted. I would have to bring him home – I couldn’t let him think his family had deserted him.”
Sue continues, “The reality for disabled patients in a hospital during the pandemic is that they would not have access to the same support team, and family support that they require on a daily basis.
“There are many people in the sector who have really high-complex medical issues, and I don’t know if this would be catered for during their hospital stay.”
Government driving uncertainty
Speaking to 9Honey Parenting, Sue conveys that her best hope for resolution in the current crises is squarely upon the government stepping up to the plate.
“There has been no clear direction and no guidance. The government has really let us down.”
Sue advises, “[Rapid antigen] tests need to be made free and directly available to the disability sector, and I’m encouraging everyone I know to speak out, so we can get there.”