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Staff, PPE shortages leave aged care providers in ‘untenable’ position

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A peak aged care group has demanded answers from SA Health about staffing guidelines and lagging supply of personal protective equipment, arguing several local providers are “in danger of running out of supplies” – a scenario it brands “untenable in the current environment”.

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Aged & Community Services Australia has written to its South Australian members detailing a list of questions and concerns it has raised directly with SA Health.

The bulletin says it is seeking “clarification” from SA Health’s Communicable Disease Control Branch about “the approach being taken to furloughing of aged care staff in South Australia”.

It notes that while the Commonwealth Health Department and national chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly had “approved an interim framework to support safe assessment and decision making when determining whether to place work restrictions on residential aged care workers”, local health care units “are responsible for considering when work permissions and restrictions are required”.

“Ongoing availability of staff is of the greatest concern to providers in circumstances where they are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak,” the email states.

“We are aware of circumstances where providers have been unable to gain any workforce support where they have experienced an outbreak, and [of] this being exacerbated due to their regular contract staff provider being unable or unwilling to supply staff to a COVID impacted facility.

“This places existing staff under enormous pressure.”

ACSA demands clarity on “the approach to be taken here in South Australia in relation to aged care staff who are designated close contacts and who work in a high risk exposure setting”.

“Where their absence through being furloughed would have a high impact on the service, will they be allowed to remain in the workplace as per the national guidance document?” it asks.

It notes that while Premier Steven Marshall recently indicated there would be exceptions to the state’s latest ‘close contact’ definitions, “including for vulnerable cohorts such as aged care,” the sector was yet to be notified how it would be affected.

“Can you please translate the definition of a close contact in the aged care context, given the caveat given by Premier Marshall regarding aged care?” the email asks.

ACSA bills itself as “the leading national peak body supporting not-for-profit, church and charitable providers of retirement living, community, home and residential care for more than 450,000 older Australians”.

The missive also argued that “several providers” were experiencing supply challenges with personal protective equipment [PPE], asking: “What is the current situation regarding supply and delivery of PPE from SA Health?”

“We currently have several members experiencing delays in receiving PPE from SA Health, with some delays leaving providers in danger of running out of supplies,” ACSA says.

“This is untenable in the current environment.”

The correspondence notes that managing exposure events or “actual outbreaks” requires “access to adequate PPE supplies”.

“This is essential to [infection prevention and control] management and resident and staff safety,” it said.

“Access to PPE is also required if facilities are to implement the arrangements contained in the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Interim Guidance on managing workforce document released to the sector on 1 January”.

The email noted SA chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier told FIVEaa recently that “it’s actually going to be better for these patients to be treated with somebody who may be a close contact, because there just would be otherwise no service for them at all”, emphasising that rapid antigen testing and PPE would be necessary to “minimise any transmission to patients”.

But ACSA argues a directive from SA Health last month requiring “the use of PPE for close contacts” creates a “logistics challenge” given the scant supplies.

“The use of full PPE for ALL possible contacts in a residential care facility is proving quite challenging for some providers – for example one member reported 49 close contacts being designated in one of their facilities,” the email states.

“This creates significant logistics in relation to access to adequate PPE supply.”

SA Health this afternoon confirmed that as of today there were more than 100 aged care facilities in South Australia that have reported positive COVID-19 cases, with over 200 positive staff members and almost 200 positive residents across all sites.

In a statement, a spokesperson for SA Health said “we are working with aged care providers regarding staff furloughing and risk assessment to ensure all sites have adequate staffing to provide a safe and respectable environment for residents and staff”.

“Aged care is managed by the Commonwealth and aged care providers experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks are able to access equipment such as PPE via the national stockpile, if they are unable to source through their usual means,” the spokesperson said.

“Aged care providers are also able to order PPE from SA Health if required, while waiting for additional supplies to arrive from the Commonwealth.

“We thank our staff for their continued dedication to looking after South Australia’s aged care residents.”

Calvary Care yesterday informed residents and families of its Flora McDonald Retirement Community in Cowandilla that it had recorded three new cases among residents and staff, bringing “the total number of confirmed active positive cases at Calvary Flora McDonald to 16 residents and 16 members of staff”.

“The Home is closed to visitors until SA Health has deemed it safe to reopen,” the missive said.

“Residents and their loved ones can stay connected by making phone calls, sending letters, cards or text messages, or by using our WebEx video call service.”

It assured families that “dedicated staff are working hard to keep all residents safe from infection”.

“We kindly request that contact with the Home is minimised due to the increased workload on staff,” it said.

-additional reporting by Jemma Chapman

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