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COTA calls for 'Essential Visitors' for aged care residents

Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia is calling for action from State and Territory Governments to implement an 'Essential Visitor' provision that will ensure older residents in aged care have access to at least one person at all times, even during a COVID-19 outbreak.

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COTA says there have been awful reports of residents being socially isolated in some Victorian and New South Wales aged care facilities. [Source: Shutterstock]

This call to action comes as reports emerge from Victoria of some nursing homes isolating residents in their rooms over multiple weeks based on orders from Victorian Public Health Units due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

COTA is concerned that older residents were left without contact with family or other residents, and couldn't even go for a walk in the garden. Similar issues were reported in New South Wales.

As people in Victoria and NSW have been providing more freedom, many in aged care have not, described by COTA as "cruel and harmful levels of extended isolation from loved ones and fellow residents".

This request from COTA yesterday was on the same day that South Australia announced that anyone entering aged care facilities must be full vaccinated from 6 December, 2021 - the second State to implement such a mandate after New South Wales.

Chief Executive of COTA, Ian Yates AM, says that an 'Essential Visitor' system must formally recognise that visits from loved ones are essential care for aged care residents and also provide clarity that the nominated person for a resident must be able to visit them at all times with appropriate health measures in place. 

"State and Territory health regulations and directions need to urgently mandate that every resident can nominate at least one Essential Visitor (and a backup) to remain connected with, even during an outbreak, so that residents receive the care and support for their social or emotional wellbeing that only a loved one can provide," says Mr Yates.

"COTA welcomes constructive discussion with Victorian health authorities over the past week which we are now hopeful will lead to an early implementation of this proposal, and other measures to ease these situations. We are also hopeful of a positive response from NSW authorities. This arrangement needs to be in place in all States and Territories."

Mr Yates adds that there have been reports of some nursing homes not allowing families to visit their loved ones even when they are not required to be locked down due to an outbreak.

COTA is asking aged care providers to balance the COVID-19 risk with the needs of residents to remain socially connected and able to receive support from their loved ones that are essential to their physical, emotional and mental health.

"It’s deeply concerning that at this stage in the pandemic we are still seeing some aged care providers not following the Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes and doing the wrong thing, forcing unnecessary and cruel additional restrictions on older Australians in their care, when public health advice does not direct them to," says Mr Yates.

"COTA has received several shocking reports. These include one resident who had not seen her family for months who gave notice to her provider that she was moving out but was physically restrained and prevented from leaving when her husband came to pick her up. 

"Another older person living with dementia, who tested positive for COVID-19, was isolated and not allowed to shower for eight days because of a belief that the steam would spread the virus.

"Providers making up their own rules is a clear breach of human rights. We have said repeatedly that aged care must be grounded in giving older Australians choice, dignity and respect. Locking them up over long periods robs them of all these things."

Mr Yates says that it is known that prolonged isolation can cause irreversible harm to the individual and aged care providers cannot keep locking everyone down whenever there is a nearby outbreak.

The Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes has a 'Partners in Care' clause which allows an older person to have a close person enter their aged care facility frequently to provide regular routine care and companionship.

Today, the newly revised Industry Code was released for public consultation and includes an Essential Visitor policy in the draft. This will be the sixth revision of the Code to reflect the National Plan to transition to Australia's National COVID-19 Response.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), Sean Rooney, says the providers are required to adhere to public health orders which direct visitation arrangements for residents.

"Residential aged care facilities are still required to screen all visitors on entry and to adhere to density requirements, as well as take into account the wishes of their residents when considering how to conduct visits safely and responsibly. The intent being to ensure the risk of COVID-19 transmission is managed effectively," says Mr Rooney.

"While relaxation of visiting restrictions recognises the progress made with vaccination rates, aged care providers remain very alert to the risks posed to residents where there is still a high level of community transmission.

"The Visitor Access Code is currently under review and consultation with key stakeholders is underway."

Paul Sadler, CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA), says it is important for there to be safeguards in place that can keep older people safe in aged care whilst having access to their older loved ones.

"COVID-19 is still circulating in the community and aged care will remain at the front line of the pandemic for some time. This makes the Visitor's Code extremely important to make it clear how to balance infection control measures with the kind of social supports that keep older people happy and healthy," explains Mr Sadler.

"Staff, older people and their friends and family must work together to keep everyone as safe as possible. We thank everyone for their understanding and hard work. It's been a huge effort through an extremely difficult period."

SA makes it illegal to enter aged care without both COVID-19 jabs

South Australia is the second State to make it mandatory for anyone entering aged care to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, after New South Wales.

The State’s Residential Aged Care Facilities Direction was updated to include this new rule for those wishing to enter aged care.

People entering aged care, no matter if they are entering as a contractor or visitor, must have received both doses of an approved or recognised vaccine before the deadline of 6 December, 2021.

SA Health Director of Office for Ageing Well, Cassie Mason, says, "There is strong and compelling evidence that in addition to reducing the severity of illness in individuals, COVID-19 vaccines significantly reduce the chance of getting infected and reduce transmission to others by those who do become infected.

"The new Direction will provide important protection for vulnerable older South Australians against the risk of COVID-19 transmission, while optimising essential family relationships and community engagement."

SA Police say this mandate does not apply to people who have a medical exemption from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, either on a permanent or temporary basis, or to a child under the age of 12 years and two months.

Since 17 September, it has been mandatory for all aged care workers across Australia to be vaccinated to work in a nursing home, but only New South Wales and South Australia have made it mandatory for all people to be fully vaccinated to enter aged care.

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