Aged care crisis expected to peak by end of July as minister unveils new measures

Aged care homes have been promised better access to antiviral drugs and vaccinations, amid predictions current coronavirus outbreaks – already killing scores of nursing home residents each week – will worsen in the coming fortnight.

As aged care COVID-19 deaths continue to increase, the Albanese government on Thursday launched its “winter plan” for how to handle outbreaks in centres across the country.

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells warned she expected case numbers to spike later this month, with outbreaks and illnesses peaking in late July.

“We’re looking at a wave going across [aged care homes in] July and August, probably peaking at the end of July,” she told a media conference in Brisbane.

The government’s new plan has five key elements: increasing vaccination rates; improving resident access to antivirals; encouraging operators to proactively work with families; getting better at preventing residents, visitors and staff in homes catching COVID-19; and better training in infection control.

A group representing aged care operators also expressed alarm on Thursday at the decision by state governments to remove all restrictions on visitors.

On Wednesday, NSW rescinded previous public health orders prohibiting residents in aged care from having more than two adult and two child visitors a day. They also removed the requirement that all visitors be vaccinated. It followed the Victorian and Queensland governments removing those rules.

Data released by the federal health department on Thursday showed that coronavirus deaths in aged care homes had averaged 76 a week during the first half of the year.

Since January 1 this year, 2143 Australians in aged care homes have died with coronavirus. Analysis of those figures also reveals that the number of deaths is increasing steadily – by at least 10 per cent each month since February.

Wells said the looming surge in aged care outbreaks were set to be as deadly as the first wave of the Omicron strain of coronavirus, which took hold in homes in January.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly told her he was “as worried about this wave as he was in December about what became the January Omicron wave”, she said.

The daily figures also show the stark age difference between those catching COVID-19 and those dying from it. Those being infected with the virus are predominantly people aged younger than 60, while those dying from it are largely in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Federal Labor came to office in May promising to help increase wages for aged care workers in a bid to attract more people to an area hit badly by staff shortages.

A group representing both for-profit and charity aged care home operators said that staffing levels remained a key problem in tackling breakouts in homes.

“While aged care providers in residential, home and community care are better prepared now compared to last year, a chief concern is workforce availability,” the group’s interim chief executive Paul Sadler said in a statement that also welcomed the government’s winter plan.

“At the height of the Omicron wave, providers had anywhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their workforce absent due to COVID infections placing an enormous strain on remaining staff to keep caring for residents,” he said.

Sadler also said that operators were very concerned that some public health orders were “being wound back in some states and on a national level”.

“The timing is especially unfortunate given the rapid escalation in the number of COVID outbreaks affecting aged care providers across the country in the past week. The aged care system is already under extreme pressure from COVID, so every bit of help is needed.”

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