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Aged care workforce still approaching vaccination target on day of mandate coming into effect

The Federal Government’s mandate for aged care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has come into effect today and at least 96 percent of the workforce has had their first dose.

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After updated data becomes available next week the Department will begin to enforce the vaccine mandate. [Source: Shutterstock]

About 77 percent of workers are fully vaccinated, according to Government data, but aged care facilities are only required to report data by the Tuesday of each week, so the most up to date data on staff who haven’t been vaccinated by today’s deadline will only be available next week.

The Department of Health confirms it has made contact with facilities with low vaccination rates and found most had simply not updated their data, although where there were other issues “additional vaccination teams” were sent to the facility.

After updated data becomes available next week the Department will begin to enforce the vaccine mandate.

“Compliance work will then be undertaken by the Commonwealth Department of Health in line with the public health orders in each state and territory, to clarify if there are any outstanding staff or where exemptions may have been granted or would apply,” a spokesperson for the Department says.

Ian Yates, Chief Executive of Council on the Ageing (COTA) says the Government, providers and staff have worked well together and show what can be achieved with a concerted effort.

“Quite a lot of facilities are telling us they’re at 100 percent (vaccination),” he says. 

“There are some facilities that are lower and they’re being followed up and in some cases they’re not actually lower, they just haven’t updated their data… but there are others where there might have been localised supply problems.

“The direction that everybody had to be completed by the 17th was always subject to the potential for some extensions where, for example, it hasn’t been possible but staff are booked in or where there has been a supply problem but that supply is expected to come in the next few weeks.”

Mr Yates says he also understands there is a portion of the workforce with medical exemptions from the vaccine, but that those cases make up about 0.3 percent of the workforce.

Supports are in place to allow care for older Australians to continue at a high standard as the mandate comes into effect, according to Leading Age Services Australia Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sean Rooney.

“In some cases, under the State and Territory public health orders temporary exemptions will be in place to ensure there is continuity of care, quality and safety for both the residents and the staff caring for them,” he says.

However, according to Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA) and Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) today’s target for staff to have one dose of the vaccine is not enough.

ACSA CEO Paul Sadler says the organisation has four priorities for the Government to focus on; supporting aged care homes which haven’t reached 100 percent vaccinations, ensuring second doses are administered, supporting uptake of rapid antigen testing in homes for further protection and boosting rates of vaccination in home care staff.

“Covid doesn’t take a break and we need to learn, adapt and develop our strategies for protecting aged care residents, their families and workers,” he says.

“This is the time for greater leadership and direction from the government.”

Meanwhile, OPAN is calling for a specific plan for how social restrictions will be rolled back for vaccinated older Australians.

“We should be doing everything we can to support older people getting back to doing what they love with the people they love as soon as they can do so safely,” CEO of OPAN Craig Gear says.

He says the organisation is concerned about how local health services and aged care providers are interpreting visitation restrictions and stay at home orders, with the only valid reason for room isolation being an outbreak of COVID-19 in the facility.

“The rights under the Charter of Aged Care Rights are clear – older people have the right to maintain their independence, have control and make choices about their care, personal and social life, including where choices involve personal risk,” Mr Gear says. 

"We know how much it will mean to older people in residential homes who are under stay-at-home orders in New South Wales to be able to leave for exercise, a crucial part of maintaining their health and wellbeing.”

But COTA’s belief is that the next step should be to push for vaccination of home care workers, who support more than one million older Australians.

“We know there’s a certain proportion of home care clients for whom that’s an issue and they have actually been asking people if they're vaccinated or asking the provider if their staff are vaccinated,” Mr Yates says.

“Now, quite a lot of home care providers have taken those steps but we believe that should be the next stage.”

But Mr Yates acknowledges vaccinating more home care workers would need more planning as providers could have staff working across the country, rather than in central locations like aged care facilities, and says a system where home care workers could receive a vaccination as a walk in priority, rather than having to book an appointment, could work.

The National Cabinet of State, Territory and Federal Government leaders is meeting today and will discuss the progress of the vaccine rollout.

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