‘Genuinely diabolical’: in-home aged care struggling to meet critical needs under Omicron surge

By Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Elderly woman sitting on a bed
In-home care providers are concerned they will not be able to keep their clients and staff safe. Photograph: Education Images/UIG/Getty Images/Universal Images Group

Home care providers say critical care services, including nursing and medication needs, are being left to family members as they juggle limited staff numbers due to explosive growth in Covid case numbers.

Labor says the federal government’s management of the aged care sector has been “diabolical”, with Covid outbreaks in at least 495 aged care homes nationally and a shortage of rapid antigen tests.

Integratedliving Australia, which has more than 20,000 clients in regional, rural and remote areas across the eastern seaboard, said about 8% of its in-home care workforce was either infected or in isolation as a result of Covid exposure – up from 6% the previous week.

Most of its clients are on commonwealth home support programs but some have higher needs and utilise home care packages and NDIS programs.

As some services are scaled back, family members are being asked to take over critical care duties to allow staff to be prioritised where needed.

Integratedliving’s chief operating officer, Indra Arunachalam, said staffing issues were most acute in the Hunter Valley and Central Coast areas of NSW.

“This is where we are cancelling some services and some of the strategies we’ve put in there is saying: ‘Although you normally receive two hours worth of services, can we just give you one hour with those services, this time?’” she said.

“And we’re having the conversation with clients to delay domestic assistance because we need to divert staff to do the critical issues such as medication support, personal care, nursing, meals and things like that.

“In other areas where we have had no staff we’ve basically worked with the client’s family to support the clients with those critical services.”

Arunachalam said this meant that in some instances families were taking over nursing tasks and administering medical supplies so that limited staff could be directed to those with greater need.

“We are concerned that we cannot sustain this level of effort and resourcing to keep our clients and staff safe,” Arunachalam said.

The organisation has been unable to procure enough rapid antigen test kits to assist with staffing issues and – unlike the residential aged care sector – there is no priority access to commonwealth supplies for in-home care providers.

Arunachalam said there needed to be a consistent national approach for the sector and available RATs to help manage the spike in Covid cases.

“Given the PCR tests were made available free under Medicare for all Australians, the expectation was that the RATs would follow a similar sort of path,” she said.

“It’s really frustrating that there’s been a lack of a consistent national approach that has actually been thought through, and not just for the aged care sector or the health care sector, but in all sectors, when we are all worried in the community.”

Paul Sadler, from the peak body Aged and Community Services Australia, said providers were being forced to make difficult decisions as a result of worsening staff shortages.

“There’s obviously the impact on the ability to provide the basic care that older people need. So are people able to be showered daily, do you have to reduce that? Are you able to meet their individual needs if you’re down that many staff?” he said.

“We have aged care homes, we have home care services who are telling us they’ve lost anywhere between five and 30% of their staff. How you’re meant to maintain quality of care for older people when you have a third or more of your staff knocked out is anybody’s guess.”

Federal Labor’s shadow minister for senior Australians, Claire O’Neil, said the aged care sector was already in a crisis before the Omicron wave hit.

“Now we’ve got the pandemic and Omicron layered over the top and what providers are telling me is that the situation is genuinely diabolical,” she told ABC radio.

“I’ve had providers tell me that they’ve been involved in aged care for 40 years and they’ve never seen a situation as bad as it is today, and other providers saying that they wouldn’t be surprised if providers actually left the sector and stopped providing services altogether.

“There is an awareness right now that we’re not providing safe care to these frail and vulnerable people and providers don’t want to be in a position to do that.”

On Tuesday, Guardian Australia reported that rapid antigen tests were “virtually impossible” for aged care providers to access, particularly for preventive screening, while the disability sector is also experiencing similar challenges.

A spokesperson for the federal health department said the government was working closely with the sector to ensure they had Covid plans in place for all care recipients so they “can continue to receive the high priority services they need”.

“The Australian government recognises the hard work of the in-home and community aged care sector throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and their continued efforts to provide necessary services to senior Australians to stay safely in their homes,” the spokesperson said.

“We will continue to update guidance to providers to ensure they have access to the latest information so they can provide a safe environment for both care recipients and their staff.”

The department said financial support had been provided, including grants to aid mandatory vaccination for the workforce and to cover any increased costs incurred due to a Covid-19 outbreak among staff and care recipients.

“The government continues to adjust guidance and consider additional measures as circumstances change.”

The spokesperson said rapid antigen tests had been prioritised for residential aged care but the government would continue “to assess the need for additional measures for high-risk groups in light of the current Omicron outbreak”.


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