While the government has declared that the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory for aged care workers, some staff are worried that refusing the vaccine will mean their rostered hours will be slashed.
Readers on HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group have expressed their concerns about the vaccine, with one commenting they have been told they will get fewer hours of work if they refuse to be vaccinated.
Mary-Louise McLaws, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of New South Wales and advisor to the WHO, told HelloCare she is “horrified” the government isn’t making the COVID-19 mandatory for care staff and any staff “from the front yard to the back yard” in residential aged care homes should be vaccinated.
“There is no room for complacency,” she said. “I’ll be very unpopular, but that’s the way it is.”
It’s not a matter of rostering staff on for fewer hours if they don’t get vaccinated, McLaws said, staff who refuse to be vaccinated should not work in aged care at all.
“To reduce the hours is not reducing the risk.
“It doesn’t take many hours or minutes to transmit if you are helping somebody in and out of bed, helping them to the showers. Your face will be in their face,” she explained.
“If you don’t like the heat in the kitchen, then get out,” she said.
“Times have changed. We’re talking about a pandemic.
“If I were responsible for staffing,” McLaws said, “I’d say no vaccine, no work.”
Aged care workers must ask themselves why they are resistant to vaccines, McLaws said.
Vaccinations are not just for the recipient’s own health, but for the “wider good” – just like wearing a mask.
“You wear a mask to protect yourself, but you’re also wearing a mask to protect others because you may not know you are providing a risk to others.”
When you are in a workplace where you are providing care to the very vulnerable elderly, the matter is particularly critical.
“Everybody has a responsibility when they work with the elderly,” McLaws said. “They have a residents’ safety in their hands.”
Elderly residents living in their own homes would have the ability to refuse to employ carers who were not vaccinated. But aged care residents are living in communal homes, and they “don’t have that ability to protect themselves, nor do their family have that ability to provide that protection to them,” McLaws said.
Therefore, aged care managers have a responsibility to make decisions, for example on staffing, that protect the health and safety of residents.
Though McLaws is “not a great supporter” of mandatory vaccination, she draws the line at healthcare workers, particularly those working in aged care during the pandemic.
“Their ill health or potential to transmit infection can impact the lives of elderly residents.”
However, infectious diseases expert, Professor Robert Booy, told HelloCare there’s no need to make the vaccine mandatory because it should “sell itself”.
“I predict that the great majority will say yes,” he said.
“It’s going to provide aged care workers and the elderly a strong protection against a nasty disease.”
Because a large proportion of aged care workers are between the ages of 40 and 60, refusing the vaccine will “place them at risk of catching a disease that is nasty… they could get COVID-19 moderate to severely,” Booy said.
“Most reasonable people would want to prevent themselves from getting the disease… and certainly prevent the transmission in nursing homes.
“Once you’ve got an outbreak in a nursing home it can become very hard to contain. It can be very hard to control.”
Booy said there is also “no doubt” that staff can be spreaders of COVID-19 in aged care homes.
“They go from room to room and for all the good care that [aged care staff] show to their clients, they are also a potential spreader of disease.
“We want to avoid that.”
“If the outbreaks in NSW and Victoria didn’t teach us anything it’s that the risk to residents is through staff,” McLaws said.
“There’s no excuse” not to be vaccinated, McLaws told HelloCare.
So far in Australia, 909 people have died, of which 685 were residents of aged care homes.
“We can not afford to lose one more person.”
McLaws put it bluntly. “It’s up to the workers to make sure [the residents] don’t die.”
Families who knew staff in their loved one’s homes were refusing vaccination, would probably take them home – potentially leaving staff without a job anyway, she said.
Booy said it’s natural there would be “reservations” about a new vaccine, but with more than 100 million vaccines administered already around the world, evidence of its safety is “growing all the time”.
The fact that case numbers are dropping rapidly in the UK and the US suggests vaccination is effective too.
The vaccine does “prevent disease, and we’ll have a booster which is commensurate with the mutation within a few months.”
“It’s the best we’ve got,” he said.