No jab, no work on COVID front line for aged care staffMay 31, 2021
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Public sector aged care workers in Victoria who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be stood down from front-line duties to prevent the latest outbreak from reaching the state’s most vulnerable people.
Department of Health secretary Euan Wallace said all health and aged care staff working directly with patients or nursing home residents in the public system should be inoculated against the flu and COVID-19.
Waste water testing at the COVID-hit Arcare aged care home in Maidstone.Credit:Eddie Jim
“You don’t work in [intensive care] unless you get vaccinated for flu and COVID, you don’t work in [emergency departments] unless you get vaccinated for flu and COVID,” Professor Wallace said. “The expectation is that all high-risk-facing healthcare workers are vaccinated for both flu and COVID.”
The tightening of Victoria’s COVID-19 defences came as federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed he had asked the nation’s peak health advisory group to consider whether to mandate COVID-19 jabs for all staff working in private residential aged care.
Confirmation that Melbourne’s outbreak had infected aged care staff at two centres and a resident at one of the homes has raised the spectre of last winter’s deadly second wave in Victoria, which killed 655 people in residential aged care. Aged care residents represent two-thirds of the national COVID death toll and most of them were in private facilities.
Eleven new local COVID-19 cases were recorded on Monday, bringing to 54 the number of active cases linked with the outbreak, which has been traced to an Adelaide quarantine hotel.
Acting Premier James Merlino said Victoria faced an “incredibly serious” situation. When asked whether the seven-day lockdown would be extended, he said the next few days would be critical. “That includes the possibility that this outbreak will get worse before it gets better,” he said.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the duration of Victoria’s lockdown, its fourth of the pandemic, was a “day-to-day prospect”.
Victoria and the Commonwealth have reactivated their joint Victorian Aged Care Response Centre to co-ordinate the crisis response and address weak spots in the vaccine roll-out.
Professor Wallace told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that although the government had not used laws passed at the start of the pandemic to mandate vaccinations across healthcare and nursing home staff, healthcare services under their own COVID-19 plans could prevent anyone who had not been vaccinated from having direct contact with patients and residents.
“Essentially what the hospitals do is take them out of that environment,” Professor Wallace said.
He said more than 90 per cent of Victorian public sector health and aged care workers were vaccinated against COVID-19.
Stephen Parnis, an emergency medicine physician and former Victorian president of the Australian Medical Association, backed the hardline stance. “If you are a health worker and you refuse or are unable to be vaccinated, I don’t think you can work facing patients,” he said.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee recommended in January that COVID-19 vaccinations be “strongly encouraged” among aged care staff but not mandatory. At the time of the advice, evidence about the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing transmission of the virus was still emerging.
Mr Hunt said he had asked the committee to “review precisely that question” and provide fresh advice to national cabinet.
The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in Australia’s residential care system, which is regulated by the federal government and predominantly provided by private operators.
Victoria provides more public sector aged care than any other state, with about 5700 beds. Professor Wallace said vaccination rates were about 90 per cent in these homes but he had “no visibility” about vaccination rates of staff in private nursing homes, which provide 85 per cent of beds.
In an attempt to fill in the gaps, the federal government is considering asking aged care workers to self-report whether they have been given a vaccination.
NSW Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said the record-keeping of vaccination rates across aged care staff was haphazard. “We know we aren’t where we want to be but we don’t know where we are,” he said.
In Victoria, Health Workers Union secretary Diana Asmar said that without reliable vaccination data, aged care was “flying blind”.
Mr Hunt said about 85 per cent of aged care residents across the country have chosen to be vaccinated. “Every day, we’re pushing to make sure that as many people are vaccinated as possible,” he said.
Labor’s federal aged care services spokeswoman Clare O’Neil said that before the government decides to make vaccines mandatory for aged care workers, it has to have a clear plan for vaccinating them.
“What everyone wants to see is clear targets put in place for this crucial area of our workforce,” she said on ABC’s Afternoon Briefing on Monday.
“What is the point of vaccinating hundreds of thousands of aged care residents when the people who are coming in and out of the facilities every day have not been vaccinated?”
The Andrews government in March last year passed a mandatory vaccination law for health and aged care workers.
Although the legislation was drafted with influenza in mind, former health minister Jenny Mikakos said that once a COVID-19 vaccine was available, it would be added to the schedule of mandatory jabs.
Mr Wallace confirmed that, despite the laws being in place for 14 months, the government had not made use of them for either flu or COVID-19 vaccinations.
The Victorian government has also chosen not to use the sweeping emergency powers of the Chief Health Officer to direct aged care staff in public and private nursing homes to be vaccinated for COVID-19. On May 27, the day the lockdown was announced, acting Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng reissued directions for all staff in “care facilities” but did not stipulate a need for vaccinations.
Health Minister Martin Foley said the CHO’s exercise of emergency powers, where possible, needed to reflect nationally consistent policies.
Opposition health spokesman Georgie Crozier said if Victoria could unilaterally impose a curfew at the height of the second wave, it could mandate vaccinations in residential aged care.
“The Andrews government has had months to prepare and ensure all healthcare workers had received the required mandatory vaccinations,” she said. “Yet again Labor hasn’t put the plans in place and are now scrambling to implement.”
With Sumeyya Ilanbey, Nick Bonyhady and Rachel Clun
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