Aug 19, 2021

Residents left starving, dehydrated and with untreated pressure wounds – St Basil’s harrowing inquest

St Basil's inquest

Harrowing details of the St Basil’s COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne last year have been heard at the first hearing of a coroner’s inquiry following a year-long investigation.

By the end of the outbreak, 93 staff and 94 residents contracted the virus.

Peter Rozen, who assisted the Royal Commission and who is also assisting the coroner with the inquiry, said features of the home’s management and the way the outbreak was handled by external agencies combined to tragic effect.

St Basil’s Manager, Vicky Kos, and Chairman, Kon Kontis, declined to take part in the inquiry but it’s likely they will be compelled to provide evidence, The Age reported.

St Basil’s is owned by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.

The court heard a timeline of events, starting from the time St Basil’s assessed its preparedness for the pandemic as “satisfactory” in April 2020, through to early dates in July 2020 where a staff member worked at the home while infectious, and up until 23 August 2020 when the home’s 45th resident died.

Rozen said both the provider and the government had “misplaced confidence” in the home’s ability to handle COVID-19, news.com.au reported.

The court heard the member of staff who introduced the virus into the home continued to work while awaiting the results of her test due to confusion about company infection control policies.

The member of staff told colleagues her family had sore throats and they lived in an area with high transmission rates, but she believed she could continue to go to work if she was not displaying symptoms.

When Kos learned the staff member had tested positive to COVID-19, she called the coronavirus hotline rather than informing the Department of Health, which would have been the correct protocol. 

The federal Department of Health only found out about the St Basil’s outbreak five days after the home became aware of the case.

Once the Department is informed of a case, it installs a case manager and replacement staff. In St Basil’s case, this did not occur in a timely manner as the department was not informed.

In addition, St Basil’s declined help from a surge workforce until it was too late to ensure a smooth handover, news.com.au reported.

Eventually, all staff were stood down, and the home descended into chaos, with residents unfed and dehydrated, left lying on the floor and with untreated pressure wounds. Many residents died in the following days.

The surge workforce who did attend were under-trained and ill-prepared for the work expected of them. Many were traumatised by the events, and some failed to return to work in the subsequent days.

A nurse told Rozen, “When I checked [the resident], I observed a pressure sore. I hadn’t seen an injury like that in 20 years. It hadn’t been dressed; it looked nasty. You were able to see into the wound and see the tendon,” news.com.au reported.

One of the lawyers representing St Basil’s families, John Karantzis, told the hearing, “We have to remember that over 50 people died. We are talking about real people … left to starve and to die alone,” The Age reported.

He said people continue to grieve over the conditions their loved ones died in.

State coroner John Cain said, “The circumstances of the deaths of your loved ones, in the midst of a pandemic – with hard lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfews, restrictions on your access to see your loved ones and then no access at all – it’s hard to imagine a more difficult and distressing situation.”

He understood the desire for loved ones to seek an explanation for what occurred.

The inquest will return to the Coroner’s Court on 15 September and is expected to run for one month. 

Wednesday’s findings were the result of a year-long investigation. Cain has the power to make recommendations with the aim of preventing similar deaths in the future.

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  1. One shouldn’t prejudge the inquiry, however from the information already in the public domain, it seems St Basil’s business model was more about creating a lucrative revenue stream for the Greek Orthodox Church rather than a philanthropic desire by that church to provide care for the elderly. The elderly were just a business opportunity no less than for any of the ‘for profit’ providers which have proliferated since the Howard government changed policy to allow such care models.

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